NARA seeks ideas for e-records archive

After devoting three years and spending more than $20 million to research and build some of the basic components of an electronic records archive, the federal government is asking private companies to submit any ideas they might have to help turn the idea into reality.

The National Archives and Records Administration is searching for some workable way to save electronic records for decades or even centuries. But the agency faces at least two daunting problems: Fast-changing technology means that electronic files created just a few years ago are already in obsolete formats and may no longer be retrievable. And the sheer volume of e-records — 36.5 billion a year in e-mail messages alone — is overwhelming.

In a request for information to vendors, NARA officials indicate that they are open to any suggested solutions.

"We want to be sure there isn't something else out there that we should be looking at," said Reynolds Cahoon, NARA's chief information officer. "We're vitally interested in seeing what the vendor community has to offer."

NARA is especially interested in "off-the-shelf products" that might meet its e-records storage needs, he said.

The RFI notes that NARA is already involved in "a number of research activities and prototypes" for long-term e-records storage systems but, the agency stresses, prior work "does not imply any commitment by NARA" to those technologies and architectures.

"We want to get as many creative ideas coming forth as possible," said Lewis Bellardo, deputy archivist of the United States. "We did not want to constrain the responses we might get" by listing system requirements specific to the prototypes NARA has already developed.

Records management officials at NARA were not available to discuss whether the prototypes they have developed still appear likely to solve the agency's e-records problems.

In 1991, U.S. Archivist John Carlin announced that a major breakthrough in storage technology could mean that a pilot version of an e-record archive could be operating by 2004 or 2005.

But Bellardo and other NARA officials make it clear that they are open to other solutions. A statement released by NARA says the RFI is intended to generate information "from vendors and integrating contractors in order to determine the best solution for building" the e-records archive.

To ensure that NARA receives enough good ideas, the agency intends to issue two more RFIs, Bellardo said.

NARA hopes to award two or three system design contracts that will lead, after 18 months, to a single system designer.

Ultimately, NARA intends to use "a modular contracting approach" that will divide the e-records archive project into segments, with each segment producing a usable component of the archive.

Companies have until Sept. 4 to respond to the RFI, but some may be reluctant to offer their best ideas, said Michael Tankersley of Public Citizen. "I do not know why anyone would give very meaningful information at this point since it might benefit competitors."

After the other two RFIs are issued, NARA plans to hold an industry conference on the e-records archive next spring.

Two years ago, Carlin told Congress it would cost $130 million and take five years to build an e-records archive.


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