Archives tests e-records
- By William Matthews
- Jun 26, 2000
The National Archives and Records Administration is preparing to test the
intelligence of an electronic records management system. It hopes the system
will be smart enough to read documents as they are created and decide which
are important enough to be kept as official records and where and for how
long they should be stored.
How well the test system works will tell archivists a lot about how
soon their plan for a fully electronic archive might be achievable.
Developing an automated archiving system is important to NARA. As the
nation's recordkeeper, the Archives is annually inundated by literally billions
of records created by federal agencies on paper, film, magnetic tape and
in the form of computer files, e-mail and other formats.
The system the Archives is planning to test was created by Provenance
Systems Inc., a company based in Ottawa, Ontario, and Arlington, Va., that
builds automated records management systems.
The system's most important — and most remarkable — feature is artificial
intelligence, which enables it to read and recognize when a document should
be filed as a record. To do so, the system must be smart enough to be "trainable"
by archivists. " "Trainable' in this context means that the system learns
from input from records management experts," said Sam Watkins, director
of the Presidential and Administrative Projects Division of NARA.
Initially, archivists will use the system to examine documents and determine
which ones qualify as records and where they should be stored. Eventually,
through repetition, the system is expected to recognize the elements of
a record, decide which documents fit into that category and determine where
best to store them.
"The system should file automatically once the basic system configuration
is completed," Watkins said. How well it does that "should help us understand
to what extent the system is truly "trainable,' " he said.
The automated system will be tested against NARA employees. Archivists
will compare the results of employee filing with automatic filing to see
whether the two produce different results and, if so, how significant the
The Archives "wants to learn about how these applications work so we
can better understand the issues, processes, capabilities and costs of implementing
and using these systems," Watkins said.
"This will be a very small test system," involving fewer than 30 users,
he said. Testing is to begin in October and continue for 10 months.
Eventually, archivists hope to have automated records systems that operate
"in background mode," invisible to government workers who create records.
If such systems can be created, record filing can become automatic.
U.S. Archivist John Carlin told Congress in March that an electronic
archive would take about five years and $130 million to create. The Archives
has already developed a method of "encasing" electronic records in a "digital
wrapper" so that they can be opened and read even if the software used to
create them has since been abandoned. The Archives has also demonstrated
that electronic systems can be created that are able to handle the enormous
volume of records that the federal government creates.