When Not Re-Formatting is the Function: The Electronic Records Archives


Article ImagePeople archive all the time and don't even realize it, much less realize its value. For instance, a mother may want to have records about her son who recently enlisted in the Army. Her pride may cause her to keep track of his accomplishments, yet these records will take on profound importance if he loses his life fighting in Iraq. We often do not grasp the importance of archiving until a major event in history shows us why we should stay connected with the past.

The job of archiving our nation's history falls in the capable hands of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which has the mandate to ensure, for the citizen, the president, Congress, and the courts, access to records that document the rights of citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the national experience. While this organization has made government records readily available, problems arise when the archived record you are looking for is in a format that the general public cannot access. In September, the NARA awarded more than $300 million to Lockheed Martin to construct the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) to capture and preserve the electronic records of the federal government, regardless of format, ensure hardware and software independence, and provide access to the American public and federal officials. The NARA began its efforts to develop a digital archiving solution seven years ago, and after a year-long design competition, Lockheed Martin was selected for the final contract based on the prototype they submitted for review, which emphasized flexibility and preservation.

While the actual design of the ERA is still in development, Ken Thibodeau, ERA director, says, "the architecture has to have extensibility in order to cover formats that have not been invented yet. The core part," he continues, "is figuring out what's really essential about a record. We have to be sensitive to the case. We have to decide, for example, if the best way to preserve a record may be to take a picture of it."

According to Anna Dipaola, spokesperson for Lockheed Martin, users will be able to log-in to the ERA as archivists or researchers and will have appropriate tools at their disposal based on their login. The archivist will be able to enter data regarding which format the record currently is in (Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, PDF, etc.), the date it's entered, and whether there's a date at which the record needs to be updated. This information then will be searchable by researchers. Dipaola says that the ERA is "being developed from a variety of user standpoints; for example, a student who's been trained in archiving, as well as a student who doesn't have training."

The ERA is slated for completion by 2011, with a functional subset of the system operating in two years with the objective of making all U.S. Government records available online. If the user wants to download and view the record, unless there is a privacy restriction, access is free of charge. However, if it is a specialized search or a specialized product that the ERA needs to track down, extract, and package, there will be a small fee, which usually will amount to what the government charges plus overhead costs.

Ultimately, what the ERA hopes to enhance through the already estimable NARA's archiving objectives is the perseverance of our nation's living history, regardless of the form it takes and, even more, the availability of the information to more individuals, regardless of location or format, hardware, or software restrictions.