Preserving records in cyberspace

Experts say feds can learn from state archivists

Washington state has a system that preserves electronic records. But as the National Archives and Records Administration struggles to produce its own digital archives, some preservations are wondering why state and federal governments are not collaborating on their efforts.

Next month, NARA officials will choose a design for the $500 million Electronic Records Archives project, which the agency hopes to have in place by 2011. The ERA is an ambitious federal effort to save the government's records — regardless of format — and make them available on future hardware and software.

One step ahead of the federal government, Washington state completed a smaller, $14.5 million system last October.

"We did not see any advantage of waiting five or 10 years for standards to shake out," said Steven Excell, assistant secretary of state for Washington state. "NARA has the same challenges we have."

Among those challenges: How do you deal with diverse platforms? Do you hire more archivists or buy more machines? How do you scale from terabytes to petabytes?

Management of permanent e-records will be a huge challenge in the next five to 10 years, Excell added. "The delete key is really easy to use and tempting to use," he said.

Part of the push for preservation has to do with increased federal oversight, Excell said. The federal Sarbanes-Oxley and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability acts call for the strict enforcement of e-mail retention policies.

Advances in information technology are another reason for the rapid adoption of e-records retention systems. The cost of mass storage has dropped, and digital is cheaper than paper, Excell added.

The Washington State Digital Archives facility set out to save former Gov. Gary Locke's Web site.

State officials scavenged the Web with a Microsoft Web spider tool to save Locke's site. In the future, the archives will take an annual snapshot of all state and local government sites to reduce the number of fugitive documents.

Washington officials said they will unite with other states to build bigger and better systems, but NARA officials are not closely involved.

"NARA has always been going their own direction," said Adam Jansen, Washington state's digital archivist. "They haven't expressed any interest in a partnership."

NARA officials said they are focused on their own long-term preservation and scheduling issues right now but may explore the idea of working with states in the future.

ERA Program Director Ken Thibodeau said NARA's National Historical Publications and Records Commission has granted funds to several states to assist with research and development for the ERA.

In the future, NARA and state officials will likely collaborate to draft requirements for digital archives, Thibodeau said. "We've been telling contractors that the systems have to be scalable upward and downward," he added.

The state's hassles were similar to the ones NARA will soon face, officials said.

Jansen said one of his biggest headaches was getting IT specialists from Microsoft and EDS to think about long-term preservation. "A lot of it was educating our technology partners on what we were trying to do," he said.

Charles Dollar, a senior consultant at Cohasset Associates in Chicago, said several states have policies for creating digital archives, including Minnesota and Kentucky.

"I don't know why [the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators] and the NARA are not operating on the same wavelength or same model," he said.

Washington state "did a great job of planning," he said. "It took them about two and a half, three years to go through this. They did not go through a prototyping like the National Archives is doing with ERA."

Two teams — one led by Harris and the other by Lockheed Martin — are developing prototypes for the ERA. NARA will select one of their designs next month.

One size doesn't always fit all

Policies for preserving and protecting historical records in the Digital Age differ nationwide.

For instance, Minnesota State Archives, a department of the private, not-for-profit Minnesota Historical Society, only preserves historically valuable records from state and local government. That's a sharp contrast to the National Archives and Records Administration's Electronic Records Archives project, which must preserve all evidence documenting the rights of American citizens, the actions of federal officials and the national experience.

Nevertheless, Minnesota's state archivist, Robert Horton, said the state's archive and the ERA are at different stages of development.

"NARA's got a much bigger set of concerns and resources," he said. "I'm not sure that a lot of states are in a position to collaborate."

— Aliya Sternstein

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.


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