National archivist seeks states' advice

Several members of a new electronic records advisory committee, appointed by U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein, will gather later this month to gain deeper insights into the federal Electronic Records Archives (ERA) program.

As part of ERA's next phase, the committee members will meet in Washington, D.C. "This is our first opportunity to see how it works," said David Carmicheal, president of the Council of State Archivists (COSA) and a committee member.

The National Archives and Records Administration will likely award the ERA contract in the next two weeks to one of two teams, one led by Harris and the other by Lockheed Martin. The teams are developing prototypes for the $500 million ERA program, which is a federal effort to save the government's records — regardless of format — and make them available on future hardware and software.

Last spring, COSA members suggested the organization send a team of experts to evaluate ERA after the announcement of the ERA winner. "We want to learn from what the National Archives has learned up to this point," said Carmicheal, who is director of the Georgia Archives.

In addition to state archivists, industry and information technology experts are expected to join the committee. The commmittee may recommend standards, but it would not be responsible for creating them.

No one has decided the format of committee recommendations or the frequency of meetings. NARA officials said Weinstein is still building the 15- to 20-member board and needs to pick a leader.

"Members will be selected based on individual qualifications rather than organizational representation," said NARA spokeswoman Laura Diachenko.

Many experts praised the creation of a nonfederal committee to advise NARA. The National Academy of Sciences' Digital Archiving Committee recommended such an advisory body in two reports, most recently in June. Charles Dollar, a contributor to the academy's report and a senior consultant for Cohasset Associates in Chicago, said he was impressed that Weinstein decided to create an advisory group."I take at face value that the archivist wants the views of people outside of NARA with regard to ERA," he said.

NARA officials said establishment of the new committee signals a turning point for the ERA program.

Several stakeholders from the nonprofit community say they hope NARA selects e-records users in addition to e-records experts to join the committee. "It provides a good sounding board for them in terms of what they're being told by the vendor," said Bruce Craig, director of the National Coalition for History. "It certainly wouldn't hurt for them to have a historian on that board."

So far, NARA officials have chosen some committee members who will likely play a major role in ERA's evolution. For example, they tapped Washington state's archivist, Jerry Handfield, because he had already led the development of a fully operational digital archive.

Handfield said he was asked to share results of the first state electronic records archive. Washington state completed a $14.5 million system last October.

"We hope to be able to share our experiences and insights because we're learning, too," Handfield said. "It's like climbing Mount Rainier. It's exciting when you get to the top. But the way up is unknown."

Road map for a panel

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended guidelines for an advisory committee. Whether the National Archives and Records Administration will follow those directions when establishing its new committee remains to be seen. NAS wants NARA to:

n Have an ongoing advisory group on digital preservation and information technology system design that releases an outside technical review of the designs contractors propose for the Electronic Records Archives.

n Develop the external capacity to predict changes and discontinuities in record types by monitoring new data types, information production rates and similar trends.

n Recruit an advisory group of government, academic and commercial experts with deep knowledge of digital preservation and IT system design.

NAS said the benefits would be mutual: An advisory committee would allow NARA to learn from outside efforts and would foster collaboration on techniques, standards and common components.

— Aliya Sternstein

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