nara’s new ‘era’: 40 years in the making

Streams of binary digitsOn Tuesday, I participated in a webinar hosted by Government Computer News on “The E-Records Management Tsunami: NARA’s Electronic Records Archive to the Rescue.” It featured Michael Carlson, Director of the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Electronic and Special Media Records Services Division and was hosted by Joab Jackson, GCN’s chief technology editor. A recording of the seminar is now available (60 min., Real Audio), and it is well worth a listen.

Will NARA succeed in its multimillion dollar effort to solve the federal government’s electronic information management crisis?

Maybe — but we’ll have to wait five years to find out . . .

Carlson discussed how NARA’s Electronic Records Archive (ERA) system will “change the way agencies manage and preserve records.” In addition to storing electronic records ranging from simple e-mails to complex databases, ERA will also allow agency records managers to schedule and transfer electronic records.

According to Carlson, NARA has been collecting electronic records since 1970. In 1995 — a quarter century later — NARA acknowledged that it was “heading towards mission failure” with regard to processing and preserving those records according to archival standards. It took a further five years for ERA to become an official NARA program, then four more years for an RFP to be released and awarded. Assuming that all milestones are met on schedule, ERA will be fully operational in 2012.

If you’re counting, that’s over 40 years after NARA began collecting electronic records.

Certainly, the magnitude of the task is daunting. The range of formats and the frequency of updates — satellite imagery, for example, can change daily and even hourly — makes management at the agency level a nightmare. Agencies have been waiting for guidance for decades. They are assured that they will not have to wait much longer — just five more years.

But in one five year span (2003-2007) the amount of electronic records in NARA’s custody exploded from 1 to 7 terabytes of data — an exponential increase that will no doubt continue, presenting ever more serious storage and retrieval challenges for the creating agencies and for NARA.

Beginning next year, ERA will be ready to help four pilot agencies manage their record schedules, transfer plans, and transfer requests, and also manage the instruments that transfer legal custody of records. The second phase, scheduled for next summer, will enable NARA to receive, process, and store electronic records through the ERA system using existing general records schedules and the ubiquitous SF-115 transfer form.

At the end of Carlson’s presentation, he took questions from the audience. The first question addressed how ERA will help agency staff and researchers deal with information in obsolete formats. “It’s a tremendous challenge and we don’t have the definitive answer,” Carlson said. “We will always make sure that the permanent records we have are readable, that we will always be able to make those records available in an effective way. Our research partners are working quite hard on this right now.”

I asked how ERA will integrate with the Records Management Profile of the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA) (discussed previously here). Carlson explained that NARA is working closely with OMB to ensure that ERA will be fully compliant with it — hopefully providing FEA with the much-needed records and information management front-end that it so clearly lacks in its current iteration. But Carlson did not have details on how this integration is likely to look or work.

NARA’s new ERA may soon be dawning — after a 40-plus-year night. Whether it will bring the illumination promised for it, remains to be seen.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.