Contracts planned for ERA design

National Archives and Records Administration officials expect to award two contracts in midsummer or early fall for the design phase of the agency's ambitious Electronic Records Archives program.

The program to preserve a digital record of federal government policies and operations will create large business opportunities and huge archival-science challenges, Reynolds Cahoon, NARA's chief information officer and assistant archivist, told a business group today. The administration has requested $36 million for ERA in fiscal 2005.

Speaking in McLean, Va., at an executive breakfast sponsored by market researcher Federal Sources Inc., Cahoon said that NARA has an idea about how a permanent electronic archives might work. But the idea is far from complete, he said.

Digital records transferred to NARA for long-term storage and access most likely would be preserved in both their native format and in a format that is independent of any particular hardware or software, Cahoon said. GIF, HTML, JPEG and PDF are examples of device-independent formats.

Cahoon, pulling out a Lego kit to illustrate, said the non-native file would be a container for storing both the components of the file and a set of instructions, or metadata, describing the file.

Scholars and others would use the metadata to search for files in a retrieval database. When they retrieved the files, the files' content and structure would appear as close as possible to the original, Cahoon said.

Several circumstances make NARA's electronic archives program especially challenging. Although spending on software to create records has been growing at an exponential pace, investment in technology to manage records has lagged, he said.

In addition, the long-established processes and culture that ensured federal records on paper were preserved do not yet exist for preserving digital records, Cahoon said. For those records, there is no centralized repository for safekeeping. "Who are the file clerks today? We are," he said.

Cahoon also noted that information technology officials are a new party to the conversation that must occur between program managers and records managers in the digital-records realm. And that complicates matters, he said.

But the benefits of preserving access to electronic records are immense, Cahoon said. For both federal agencies and for businesses, an effective electronic records management program for short- and long-term records reduces litigation expenses and other costs of doing business, Cahoon said.

Cahoon also made a pitch for preserving records because it is the right thing to do. "Without open records," he said, "we don't have a democracy."

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