North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
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February 26, 1996

Ms. Elizabeth F. Buford Deputy Secretary Department of Cultural Resources 109 E. Jones Street Raleigh, NC 27601-2807

Re: Advisory opinion; N.C.G.S. § 132-6.1; Public Records; Computer Database Index

Dear Ms. Buford:

The following is submitted in response to your request for an opinion on the following question:

Does the addition of data after July 1, 1996 to a state agency's electronic database which was compiled or created prior to that date have the effect of eliminating the option not to create an index for the database under the provisions of N.C.G.S. § 132-6.1(b)?

It is our opinion that the answer to the question is no based upon the following analysis. Your request involves an interpretation of N.C.G.S. § 132-6.1(b) enacted in 1995 and which reads as follows:

(b) Every public agency shall create an index of computer databases compiled or created by a public agency on the following schedule: State agencies by July 1, 1996; Municipalities with populations of 10,000 or more, counties with populations of 25,000 or more, as determined by the 1990 U.S. Census, and public hospitals in those counties, by July 1, 1997; Municipalities with populations of less than 10,000, counties with populations of less than 25,000, as determined by the 1990 U.S. Census, and public hospitals in those counties, by July 1, 1998; Political subdivisions and their agencies that are not otherwise covered by this schedule, after June 30, 1998.

The index shall be a public record and shall include, at a minimum, the following information, with respect to each database listed therein: a list of the data fields; a description of the format or record layout; information as to the frequency with which the database is updated; a list of any data fields to which public access is restricted; a description of each form in which the database can be copied or reproduced using the agency's computer facilities; and a schedule of fees for the production of copies in each available form. Electronic databases compiled or created prior to the date by which the index must be created in accordance with this subsection may be indexed at the public agency's option. The form, content, language, and guidelines for the index and the databases to be indexed shall be developed by the Division of Archives and History in consultation with officials at other public agencies.

Your request deals specifically with the sentence in the legislation which reads as follows:

Electronic databases compiled or created prior to the date by which the index must be created in accordance with this subsection may be indexed at the public agency's option.

The index for electronic databases is a new requirement which is imposed on various levels of government for databases "compiled or created" after dates set out in the statute. The sentence setting out the option not to index provides that the requirement need not be applied retroactively to existing electronic databases created or compiled prior to the relevant date. Whether an electronic database is created prior to a specified date is easily determined and presents no need for interpretation. The above quoted sentence raises the question with regard to databases created prior to July 1, 1996, as to what activity after that date constitutes "compiling" of a database so as to take the database out from under the exemption from the indexing requirement.

With regard to your question, the issue can be stated as follows. Does the addition of information to an existing database by itself constitute "compilation" of the database? Quite obviously that issue will be determined by the definition of the word "compile". When construing statutes the general rule is that words appearing therein are to be given their natural or ordinary meaning, Parrish Funeral Home v. Pittman, 104 N.C. App. 268 (1991). The word "compile" is defined as follows.

compile 1 To compose (a literary work, etc.) from other works or sources. 2 To gather

(facts, data, etc.) into a volume or into orderly form. (Webster Illustrated Contemporary

Dictionary, 1988)

compile 1. to collect and arrange (information) into a list or book. 2. to make up (a book,

etc.) in this way, compile a dictionary. (Oxford American Dictionary, 1980)

compile 1. To gather into a single book. 2. To put together or compose from materials

gathered from several sources; compile an encyclopedia. 3. To convert to machine

language. (American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1982)

Those definitions establish that the term "compile" means more than merely updating or supplementing information which already is in a fixed form. The definitions lead to the conclusion that the term encompasses the amassing of information from several sources into a new work. In light of the above definitions and the context of the entire text of N.C.G.S. § 1326.1, it appears that the word compile should be used to refer to the restructuring of an existing database or the gathering together of more than one existing electronic database, as opposed to the mere addition of new information within an existing electronic database whose structure or format does not change because of that addition.

Had the General Assembly intended to have the option only apply to electronic databases which are not being updated by new information, it could easily have so stated. For example, instead of using the wording it did, the General Assembly when enacting the statute could have used a variation of the phrase in the preceding sentence, viz. "information as to the frequency with which the database is updated." Finally, it is pointed out that to limit the option to only those databases that are not being updated with new information would severely limit the effect of the option. Specifically, the option would not be applicable to databases which have been in existence for years and which are built on arcane, unique processing programs and record layouts. Agencies often have valid reasons for using such a database rather than creating a new one and the effort necessary to index such a database may exceed any public benefit. Under those circumstances it appears logical and appropriate that the General Assembly exempted such a database from the requirement for an index.

In summary, it is our opinion that merely adding to, or updating information in an existing electronic database is not the equivalent of "compiling" a database, and therefore such additions do not have the effect of eliminating the agency's option of not creating an index for the database.

It is worthwhile to note that in North Carolina all information in any local or state government electronic database is a public record under N.C.G.S. § 132-1 and, unless otherwise made confidential by law, is subject to access by the public in accordance with Chapter 132. Therefore, a state agency may wish to create an index for an existing electronic database whenever it is practical even though an index is not required under the statute.

Ann Reed Senior Deputy Attorney General

Charles J. Murray

Special Deputy Attorney General