Recommendation 8. NARA should begin development of the ERA with a small number of focused pilot production systems designed to gain early experience and to converge ultimately into a smaller number of more comprehensive systems.
NARA should concurrently develop and deploy small, focused systems that rapidly build operational experience. All of these systems should be built within a common architectural framework (Recommendation 7), so that they may eventually coalesce into a smaller number of more comprehensive systems as experience and confidence grow. It is especially important that the data model—the data types and related metadata—conform to the architecture so that the digital data obtained by ingesting records into one of the early systems will carry forward into future evolutions.
The initial systems should be selected and scoped for rapid deployment—this is the key to gaining early experience to inform the requirements of later systems. The following are some examples of limited-scope systems that might be considered for early pilots:
U.S. State Department diplomatic cables. NARA is preparing to acquire a collection of diplomatic cables, which are simple structured text files, in digital form. Ingest might include automatic extraction of metadata from the cables; access might include full-text search or other methods appropriate to the collection. For quickest deployment, NARA might consider making these records available using software already developed for operating a digital library.
Records at the National Personnel Records Center. There is interest in preserving large but homogeneous collections of official military records scanned in TIFF image format when they are transfered to NARA’s National Personnel Records Center. Confidentiality considerations and the imperative to provide ready access to veterans or next-of-kin would require careful attention to access controls.
E-mail from the Clinton administration held by the Clinton Presidential Center. Metadata could be extracted from the e-mail headers, full-text search could be provided, and so on. The presence of attachments would permit gaining experience with preserving and providing access to a broad range of relatively contemporary data types.
These three examples illustrate collections that could be organized and made available quickly. Although these collections might lack the scale of the eventual ERA, early deployment of systems to preserve and access them would yield important operational experience for NARA and avoid costly mistakes in later, more complex systems.
Experience with early systems can be expected to lead to changes to the ERA architecture and to the substantial refinement of requirements for subsequent, more comprehensive systems. Managing the initial architecture, the first system deployments, the learning from early operations, and the revisions to architecture and specifications, and evolving the ERA will be the task of NARA’s augmented IT staff.