Lockheed plans for posterity
A project for the National Archives aims to gather, keep and make available a growing trove of documents
- By David Hubler
- Sep 04, 2008
When Congress created a central repository for federal records in 1934, lawmakers never imagined that one day the National Archives would become the foundation for a permanent electronic archival system of millions of documents, most of which will soon be available to government, academic organizations and the public from their PCs.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) collects paper documents, microfilm, photographs, motion pictures and electronic media and sorts them into record groups based on where they originated. Although some records are protected by copyright or donor agreements, most are in the public domain. However, their formats could limit accessibility.
Greater access is one of the main goals of the new Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which Lockheed Martin Corp. is building for NARA under a $308 million contract the company won in 2005. The full lifecycle cost of the program is estimated to be $453 million.
Lockheed Martin is leading a team of companies that includes BearingPoint Inc., Fenestra Technologies Corp., History Associates Inc., EDS Corp., Métier Ltd. and Tessella Inc., which have archiving and data management expertise.
"In essence, there was no [coherent] system prior to the one Lockheed is building," said Kenneth Thibodeau, ERA program director at NARA.Storing records forever
ERA will amass information ? regardless of format ? save it electronically and make it accessible even on future generations of hardware and software, Thibodeau said. It will replace three systems that can exchange data with one another only through manual operations.
One system makes bit-file copies of documents but "has no idea what the bits represent," Thibodeau said. Another enables people to search for specific information online but includes only about 100 archival databases.
The third system has archived databases that NARA collected between 1970 and 1992, but it is hampered by errors and omissions. "What we were finding was that between 25 [percent] and 33 percent of the time, the data was either not what we were expecting in terms of what we had identified as historically valuable records or it wasn't exactly what the agency told us they'd sent us," Thibodeau said.
For example, a State Department database of applicants for refugee status had practically no data in it. "It turned out they never really used it," he said of the department's officials.
In formulating the requirements for the new system, NARA concluded that ERA would accept documents based on the importance of their information rather than on the format in which the records were compiled. In addition, the new system will be the first to completely automate NARA's basic processes for managing records governmentwide, Thibodeau said. "There are no current systems in NARA that do that."
During the first of five stages of ERA's development, a group of archivists determined how long federal agencies should keep records and whether they should be preserved in the National Archives.
That phase, which concluded in June, also crafted the basic hardware system, established how to schedule records for transfer and helped set appraisal standards for NARA, said Andy Patrichuk, vice president of Civil Missions Solutions at Lockheed Martin.
In July, NARA began moving 3.5 million historically valuable computer files into the ERA system. They included databases on World War II service members and central foreign affairs files from State.Presidential search capability
The Lockheed Martin team then turned to the second phase: creating a transfer, indexing and search capability for the Executive Office of the President. "We're putting that in place to support the transition to the new president on Jan. 20, 2009," Patrichuk said.
This month, about 200 employees from the U.S Patent and Trademark Office, National Nuclear Security Administration, Bureau of Labor Statistics and Naval Oceanographic Office are scheduled to begin transferring agency records into ERA.
Eventually, there will be 600 to 1,000 NARA employees assigned to ERA, Thibodeau said, "and then we'll roll it out to the whole government."
ERA is expected to be fully operational in 2012.
The Lockheed Martin team still faces the task of creating a document preservation and retrieval system that will preserve original documents and their bit streams, transfer entire documents into retrievable formats, and retain those that cannot be transferred until an appropriate format is developed.
"It's an open, evolvable architecture," Patrichuk said. "So both the system itself helps with migrating or transforming, and also the system can accommodate new technologies as they are brought in."
ERA must ensure and maintain the authenticity of the original documents, said Sean Murphy, Lockheed Martin's program manager for the NARA ERA contract. "What's important here is not just preservation and the fact that you keep [a document], but preservation in terms of the fact that you will be able to see it and look at it. And that it has authenticity," he said.
The contract requires a system that will "preserve and make accessible these electronic records for the life of the republic," Murphy said. "This NARA ERA system is actually a very crucial step in ensuring that those government records are going to be preserved for the long term."
"This is really a race, if you will, against technology," he said. "Every single day our hardware and software continue to change and some of it becomes obsolete."
When ERA is operational, agencies will log in, create schedules for internal clearance procedures and transmission of files, and then send their records to NARA. Archivists will review all submissions, and if they find problems, they will electronically alert the originating agency. "That communication right now is all by voice," Thibodeau said.Access for all
The ERA system must accommodate not only an ever-expanding number of documents but also work with newly developed electronic formats and replace systems that become obsolete, Murphy said. "Lastly, it needs to be able to provide the capability to actually make it easier for the citizen to get access to the records."
Older documents ? such as those on paper, floppy disks or early computer tapes ? will also be transferred into the ERA system, Murphy said.
And although the contract does not cover records on microfilm or microfiche, Patrichuk said the ERA system would be able to accommodate them, too.
NARA's new archival system could also serve as a model for state and local governments that are electronically storing records that they might need decades from now, Patrichuk said. Those entities could benefit from the technology, for example, in compiling birth, death and health records; court papers; and nuclear waste storage documents.David Hubler
is associate editor at Washington Technology.
David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.