For the record, archivist looks to the future

Consider historical research and the mind generates an image of people hunched over fragile yellowed documents piled high on library tables. But in the future historians investigating the American past are as likely to sit down in front of a computer monitor and click their way around CD-ROM discs or Internet sites.

L. Reynolds Cahoon the recently appointed assistant archivist for policy and information resources management services at the National Archives and Records Administration expects to play a large role in how NARA provides computer-based research techniques to the public. He will oversee how NARA translates its new strategic vision into a systems architecture and an up-to-date technology infrastructure. And he intends to see the plan "through all its phases of evolution" during the next decade.

"We obviously will have a broad agenda for developing systems that will deliver...information to our users " Cahoon said. "The plan calls for us to strengthen and make [systems] more robust [and] more reliable and provide more bandwidth to our infrastructure here."

A native of Lincoln Neb. who was raised in Naperville Ill. Cahoon learned firsthand how technology can help unlock the past. For 16 years he worked for the family history department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints managing development of a CD-ROM database of the church's vast genealogical holdings.

"When you sit next to someone who finds a third great-grandfather who they didn't know about before and tears well up in their eyes that's very gratifying " he said. The "Family Search" software available in hundreds of genealogy libraries "set the direction for how family history will be done for what we hope are generations to come " he said.

Though he isn't trained in history Cahoon said he learned to appreciate the past because his wife Susan is a historian and because he reads widely.

Cahoon signed on at NARA last February after working as an unpaid consultant advising the agency on how it should go about drafting its strategic plan. He came to NARA's attention through an article he had written with Lisa Weber an agency archivist on strategic planning. He worked on the project as a member of the International Council on Archives' Committee on Archival Automation.

"The charge given to our committee was to tell archival institutions what kind of hardware and software they should buy " he said. "Our rejoinder to the committee was that that is not an answerable question out of context. We wrote an article...that lays out the planning process and decision process to actually answer that question."

Cahoon said he believes managers need to understand both the formal and informal processes by which employees interact with one another in order to re-engineer their organizations. He developed this philosophy by dipping into diverse sources ranging from re-engineering guru James Champy to futurist Alvin Toffler and novelist Ayn Rand all of whose works have a place on Cahoon's office bookshelves. But he said he has been influenced most by Harvard professor Chris Argyris who writes about the ways people communicate in a business environment and by Jay Forrester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has developed theories of how systems operate.

"If we can understand the systems behind patterns and events " Cahoon says "we can intervene in such a way that we can really get at the heart of an issue."

Cahoon began his career as a cost analyst and controller for Inland Steel Co. in Greenville Ohio. Based on that experience he says it is harder for government agencies to change how they do business than it is for private entities. NARA has numerous "customers" with competing interests including agencies that have to preserve their records and the public that uses them for research. NARA's challenge he said is to define "products" that serve these different markets from World Wide Web sites to prototype records-management systems.

NARA works closely with those customers. a recent project with the Defense Department built a records-management system other agencies can use as a model. Meanwhile NARA expects to test records preservation systems so it can "point out best practices to other agencies."

Cahoon envisions NARA playing a bigger role in the information technology marketplace by helping to set standards for the document management products needed for records management. "We see ourselves getting to the place where we can be much more active in...making sure record-keeping requirements are built into off-the-shelf software " he said.

Commercial products may need some "fine tuning" to satisfy federal records management needs "but in this growing electronic environment commercial entities will face many of the same problems as government agencies " he said. "It's [just] that commercial entities haven't recognized the fact yet."

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