Finding 1. As NARA recognizes, it is critical to start developing new electronic records preservation capabilities quickly in order to continue to fulfill NARA’s mandate to preserve federal records.
With the rapid increase in federal records in digital form—and with many records born digital or existing only in digital form—it is clear that solutions must be found for preserving these records in order for NARA to continue to fulfill its mandate. NARA has determined and the committee concurs that new capabilities for electronic record archiving are needed for NARA to perform its mission to preserve and provide access to federal records of enduring value.
The overall challenge facing NARA is substantial. The volume and diversity of digital records that will be eligible for transfer from the custody of federal agencies to NARA are projected to be very large. Indeed, it is reasonable to anticipate that in the not-too-distant future, the number of digital records is likely to exceed the number of records originating in paper form. NARA’s current systems for electronic records, designed primarily to support preservation of relational databases and similar highly structured records, cannot meet these demands.
The backlog of electronic records presents additional challenges. Under the paper-based model, NARA receives records from a few years to many decades after they were are created. The transfer of electronic records to NARA has for the most part proceeded in similar fashion. Thus when the ERA system becomes operational, NARA will face a large backlog of electronic records that were created over the past few decades, many of which may pose challenging preservation problems owing to their age (media deterioration, loss of documentation and other metadata, and obsolescence of data types). For records yet to be created, there may be ways to avoid the technology obsolescence problem by restructuring records acquisition processes to obtain records closer to the time they are created. (Discussion of this opportunity and related process issues is deferred to the committee’s second report.)
If NARA fails to design and implement an electronic records archiving program that is capable of handling the projected volume and diversity of electronic records, important records are likely to be lost for the reasons discussed above. Likewise, significant delays in the ERA program would put records at greater risk of loss. The consequence of either failure to institute a program or a significant delay in doing so would be the possible—indeed even likely—loss of an important part of the nation’s history.
Finding 2. ERA systems can and should be built, but it is a challenging, leading-edge engineering undertaking, not a routine procurement.
Although no one has yet designed, built, or managed a production digital archives system on the scale that NARA envisions, the ERA program can be launched in a technically sound way. No off-the-shelf overall solution is available, but there are demonstrated solutions to many of the important system components the ERA will need, making it possible to start building ERA capabilities today. The projected scale and complexity of the ERA program mean that the task of designing, engineering, and evolving the system is a formidable challenge.
Recommendation 1. The ERA should comprise a series of interrelated systems that evolve over time to fulfill NARA’s digital preservation needs.