NARA: New archive system could change records management

NARA's Electronic Records Archive: planning to preserve the future

What's it all about: The ERA will maintain, store, collect and make available electronically all records from government agencies. The system will be based on an open architecture so it can accept documents in all formats, including those that do not even exist yet.

Agency in charge: The National Archives and Records Administration

Prime Contractor: Lockheed Martin Corp.

Cost: $308 million over seven years

Status: Lockheed must have ERA's initial operating capability by 2007, which will include functions for managing, preserving and providing online access to NARA electronic records. The company built a prototype over the last year to demonstrate their capability.

Timetable: Over the next four years, the system will add more functions, enhancements and advanced preservation techniques, reaching full capability by 2011.

'Other agencies will submit requests to us online instead of on paper when they want to transfer records to us.'

'NARA's ERA director Ken Thibodeau

Rick Steele

The National Archives and Records Administration believes its Electronic Records Archive system, aside from maintaining and storing government records in formats not yet even available, will revolutionize how NARA and agencies interact with federal records for decades to come.

NARA officials said the ERA project, expected to reach initial operating capability in 2007, will dramatically alter how agencies preserve and search for historical records.

The agency awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a $308 million contract earlier this month to build the ERA system. The new application will capture, maintain and make accessible the electronic records of the government, regardless of format, ensure hardware and software independence, and provide access to the public and government officials. NARA selected Lockheed over Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla.

While details about the project's initial functions are thin right now, NARA's ERA director Ken Thibodeau said the agency's 'labor intensive' workflow processes will be history.

Glimpse of the future

'Other agencies will submit requests to us online instead of on paper when they want to transfer records to us,' he said. 'We also will have collaboration tools to interact with agencies online. We expect in 2007 agencies will log in to the ERA system and find out where their requests are in NARA's process.'

Agencies, for instance, must ask for permission to destroy records after they determine they are of no historical value. Then NARA must publish that request in the Federal Register and review comments.

'It can take months,' Thibodeau said. 'Now they have to call and find out what the status is. With ERA, they can go online and check it.'

The National Archives collects billions of military personnel records, Census Bureau data, agency e-mails and White House memos, and hundreds of millions of other historical documents'all of which will be stored electronically.

These records and others must be maintained in such a way that any user at any point in the future can access and read them, regardless of format.

The goal is for the records to remain authentic even after the technology they were developed in has become obsolete. Thibodeau estimates agencies use 4,800 different formats to create records.

ERA also will store electronic versions of paper documents NARA has scanned, Thibodeau said.
'We want one portal for anything in NARA,' he added.

Lockheed officials said they are aware that, to be fully operational in 2011, the system must be flexible and built using open architecture so it can accept and read records in formats that do not even exist yet, Lockheed's NARA program manager Clyde Relick said.

Relick and deputy program manager Tom Kelley did not disclose many technical details of ERA, citing security concerns, but said the application will be expandable because it will use digital adapters that transform records into 'persistent' or 'timeless' formats.

Lockheed will 'not rely on any specific vendor,' software or off-the-shelf product in building the ERA, Relick said.

For example, Kelley said, Lockheed's prototype runs on three different operating systems, though he would not identify which ones.

Data's the thing

'The important part of the system is the data,' Kelley said. 'It is not tied to any given hardware or software.'

ERA must go live, initially, by 2007, meaning the system will be searchable and will start storing records. One of its first tasks will be to find and account for records that are in danger of being lost, Thibodeau said. 'There is stuff from Iraq and Afghanistan that could be lost. We will go through a triage process and figure out what needs to be saved first.'

The first phase of ERA's operation also will give the public access to many electronic records, Thibodeau said.

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