Monumental task

The second half of the National Archives and Records Administration's name suggests an even bigger challenge than keeping aging official parchments from rotting away into oblivion.

The National Archives building in Washington is a big, square-cornered block of granite and limestone on the north side of the National Mall. Inside, under its ornate rotunda, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and even an original copy of the Magna Carta sit on display under thick layers of protective glass.

Those precious origins of our country's democracy remain safely preserved and ensconced — and made readily available for public inspection — for all eternity.

It’s enough to make anyone feel safe, secure and confident in our ability to preserve our still-young national heritage. Yet this museum-like setting is just the public-facing side of NARA, which stands for the National Archives and Records Administration. The second half of its name suggests an even bigger challenge than keeping aging official parchments from rotting away into oblivion.

As staff writer Ben Bain reports in this week’s cover story, NARA has a monumental challenge ahead: preserve and protect millions of public documents being generated by dozens of federal agencies in various digital formats. As Ben reports, NARA is barely a decade into the Digital Age and is already playing catch-up on its signature — and expensive — new project, the Electronic Records Archives. Both the agency’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have questioned NARA's ability to master this essential mission.

What’s more, NARA is under increasing pressure to ensure that digital records are not only preserved for posterity but also remain accessible to the public for research and oversight purposes. So the challenge ahead entails big technological and policy questions.

President Barack Obama has nominated David Ferriero, a nationally recognized librarian with credentials that include the New York Public Library, Duke University and MIT, as the new national archivist and head of NARA. Ferriero (pronounced FAIR-ee-o) does not appear to have specific expertise in electronic records management, but he gets points from experts in the field for having a firm grasp of the issues and knowing how to work with cross-cutting interest groups.

Elsewhere in this issue, Dr. John Loonsk, former director of interoperability and standards at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, comments on the challenges of creating a health information network that can unify the patchwork quilt of patient information systems across the country. Loonsk took issue with our summation of his position in a previous issue of Federal Computer Week, a mischaracterization that we acknowledge and sincerely regret. We invited him to clarify and expand on his views here.

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