The Spring 2009 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference started this morning with the plenary address, which was delivered by Ken Thibideau, director of the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) initiative at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). He sought to put ERA in an archival context, and two main threads -- the exponential increase in the volume and complexity of federal electronic records and NARA’s efforts to avoid a catastrophic system design failure akin to those experienced by other agencies and numerous software firms -- shaped his presentation.
Thibideau noted that for more than two decades, NARA’s technical capacity was limited to copying data from one tape to another and generating printouts of the data. However, the volume of electronic records transfers to NARA continually increased, and legal requests for Oliver North’s e-mail and the impending departure of President Clinton revealed that this approach was no longer workable: NARA estimated that tapes transferred by the Clinton White House would reach the end of their lifespan before NARA could finish copying all of the data on them to newer media. The ERA initiative was born out of this realization.
After outlining differences in how ERA will handle executive branch agency and Presidential records, Thibideau discussed how ERA has altered NARA’s workflows, and it seems as if NARA made some really smart decisions during the design process; during Thibideau's talk, I started contemplating how we might streamline some of our own workflows. ERA will manage the scheduling and transfer of all records, regardless of format, and reduce the number of forms that agencies must complete. It will also require agencies to supply additional information about records, particularly those in electronic format, and specify how and when permanent records will be transferred to NARA; at present, agencies don’t have to do so. ERA will also support the online transfer of electronic records and manage all of the metadata documenting the acquisition, processing, and dissemination of electronic records. In the future, it will also support review and redaction and the long-term preservation of electronic records.
In assessing the likelihood of ERA’s success, Thibideau underscored a key point: NARA has been extremely consistent about its expectations for the system. It outlined its requirements in a planning document that has not been changed substantially since 2003, and as a result has been able to focus on securing what it wants; the FBI’s Virtual Case File project and several other large-scale system design initiatives failed in part because managers could never settle on core requirements. Although the order in which some NARA components will be rolled out has changed, NARA is on track to acquire all of the functionality outlined in the 2003 planning document by the planned date of 2012.
Thibideau concluded by discussing the broader impact of ERA, which he admitted might not be as dramatic or as wide-ranging as some in the archival community had initially hoped. Although it might be legally possible for state and local governments to use ERA, they would have to adopt NARA’s scheduling process and hire someone to integrate ERA’s off-the-shelf components into their existing IT environments. However, it might be possible for them to use ERA as a preservation service, and NARA may develop open-source preservation tools that others could employ. In addition, its involvement in the federal government’s IT procurement process will help to ensure that archival concerns are increasingly reflected in system design.
All in all, a good, thought-provoking talk.