NARA kicks off 20-month projectto digitize vast historical holdings

The National Archives and Records Administration last week began a 20-month effort to digitize thousands of the nation's most significant historical documents and make them available on the World Wide Web.

The project which will create electronic versions of papers photographs recordings maps and other popular materials is one piece of NARA's plan to make its holdings more accessible to the public. Many of the 200 000 documents to be digitized - including Civil War photographs by Matthew Brady and the manuscript of George Washington's first inaugural address - can now be viewed only at the NARA facilities where they are stored.

"Our goal is to assist users who have a need for access regardless of where they live " said Lynn Bellardo who heads NARA's Information Resources Policy and Projects Division. "This is just one other technique to do that."

NARA will link the digital documents to another system that NARA also recently started to build: an electronic research catalog that will let the public search a complete index of the agency's vast holdings. During the next two years NARA plans to spend $4.5 million to digitize its holdings develop the catalog and improve the agency's internal network to support the new systems.

Page Putnam Miller director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History said the catalog will be of particular use to graduate students and scholars who want to do "preliminary research" before visiting NARA. She added however that the agency still needs to improve the content of the descriptions of about 20 percent of its holdings to make an on-line index complete.

The catalog and library of on-line documents will replace a prototype system the NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL) that the agency built for $500 000 in 1995. That system contains 240 000 descriptions of holdings and 3 500 links to digital documents.

The new electronic catalog will use a library automation software package called Virtua created by VTLS Inc. Blacksburg Va. to manage queries from users to an Oracle database. "I think what we're doing is using the technology in a way other people haven't used it before - building a catalog and linking our digital images " said Debra Wall the NARA project manager for the catalog. "We have the descriptive system and the image system really integrated."

Although Virtua and Oracle are commercial off-the-shelf products it is likely that some new code will have be written to support the terabytes of data in the catalog and image database. "As databases go over time it will be very very very large " said Steve Grimaldi director of the Advanced Systems Division for Universal Hi-Tech Development Rockville Md. which is developing the catalog with subcontractor PTFS Inc. Bethesda Md.

The agency also has had to figure out a way to efficiently distribute on the Web the huge image sound and video files that are linked to the catalog. Dan Jansen who is running the imaging portion of the project for NARA said the agency has developed a special image specification for these documents to ensure that the files are small enough to be easily retrieved by end users.

For this reason Bellardo said "we're definitely not emphasizing the audio and video" but will concentrate on photos and paper documents. NARA holds millions of historical records but when converting "even 1 percent of our holdings we would have to think long and hard about " Jansen said.

NARA contractor DoxSys Inc. Bethesda and subcontractor MSI Beltsville Md. are expected to digitize 3 000 to 4 000 documents every two weeks until the project is completed in January 1999.

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