Sprehe: Wishing NARA well

It will take a lot of effort for the Electronic Records Archives to succeed

The National Archives and Records Administration awarded a six-year, $308 million contract to build the Electronic Records Archives to a team led by Lockheed Martin. The award concludes a 12-month competition between Lockheed Martin and Harris.

The good news is that the archives project has reached an important milestone and Congress has thus far been willing to appropriate the necessary funds for it. More good news is that NARA named a blue-ribbon advisory committee of outside experts to make recommendations on issues related to ERA.

I wish NARA and Lockheed Martin success in solving the central issue of preserving and making accessible all types of digital information far into the future.

Information technology's strength is that it is constantly changing for the better. Its Achilles' heel is that it never stands still long enough to preserve digital information in forms accessible in the coming decades, let alone centuries. NARA aims to build a program to fix that.

Although I cheer NARA on, I join many others in doubting that it will succeed at that task. Two factors could hamper the agency's success. One is NARA's lack of experience with developing large-scale IT systems. The other is an agency culture generally closed to outside advice.

NARA has never developed an IT system even one-tenth as large and complex as ERA promises to be. The agency's management skills and culture for such a system are untested. To its continuing embarrassment, NARA manages its records in a largely paper-based environment while other agencies have been investing in electronic records management for years. Many experts say that what the agency does not know about electronic records exceeds what it knows. Those factors do not predict ERA's success.

As for receptivity to outside advice, NARA has long been known to have an insular culture that listens principally to itself. Archivist Allen Weinstein has said this attitude will change, but he is one man against entrenched bureaucratic mores.

Three years ago, NARA asked for outside advice from the National Academy of Sciences' Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. The board was another voice recommending that NARA engage with similar endeavors such as the Library of Congress' digital preservation program. NARA disagreed with the board's initial findings and has largely kept to its own ways.

To its credit, NARA has developed substantial ties with the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, both of which have had a significant impact on ERA's development.

NARA recently created an ERA advisory panel of luminaries, but only after the program was fully designed and the procurement completed. Appointing an advisory committee after the ERA contract was awarded smacks of window dressing or a post-factum rubber stamp. Perhaps the committee will present NARA with a few unwanted surprises.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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