Electronic Records Archives (ERA)

ERA Status and Accomplishments

What is ERA?

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has set out on an ambitious course to tackle a great challenge facing archives around the world – ensuring that electronic records created today remains accessible and verifiable as an authentic record, long after the software and hardware used to produce these records have ceased to exist. NARA's solution to this challenge is the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, a one-of-a-kind system designed to archive the wide variety of electronic records known today, and to prepare for new types of records to be archived in the future.

Permanent records are made available to the public once we have screened them to protect sensitive information, including, but not limited to, national security, personal privacy, and law enforcement information. This is true for electronic records too.

From the beginning, NARA has also been at the forefront of archiving non-paper records such as sound recordings, films and those created using computers (dating back to the earliest days of computational technology). By the 1990’s however, it was apparent that advances with the Internet and digital communications would dramatically change the ways by which information is created, shared and saved. For the past four decades, NARA has been able to keep up with archiving and preserving non-paper records by routinely migrating them to current, more stable preservation and access technologies. This practice, however, is no longer sustainable in an information age where creation and access formats change constantly and the volume of electronic records is today measured terabytes (1 million megabytes).

ERA today is a complex information management system designed to archive the variety of records that the government currently creates in electronic format. ERA will evolve to meet the needs of the U.S. Government and the public as new electronic record formats and access tools emerge.

[Watch our video about ERA and the need for an electronic records archives.]

ERA’s Major Functions:

ERA is really a “system of systems,” with multiple components that perform different archival functions and that manage records governed by different legal frameworks. The actual architecture is more complicated, but the diagram below shows the four essential functions that ERA performs.

Government agencies use the Submission function to deliver records and metadata into ERA. Electronic records are preserved and reviewed in the Repository. The National Archives’ knowledge of what those historically valuable records are, who created them and why, and what processes have been applied to them is all documented in the Metadata. Finally, the public uses the Access function to do research on records that have been screened by archivists to remove restricted information (there are separate, non-public kinds of access for restricted records, as well.)

ERA currently makes it possible for the Archives to carry out its missions in bigger, better and more efficient ways:

  • It contains A LOT of history!
    As of March 2014, ERA supports over 380 TB of electronic records, including records from the George W. Bush White House, many Federal agencies, and Congress. 

  • It has achieved efficiencies in government bureaucracy.
    ERA provides online tools for Federal agencies to create and submit new record schedules to request disposition authority and transfer documentation to send permanent records to the archives.

  • Records management has been improved.
    ERA supports records management functions, allowing an automatic link between the disposition authority, the request to transfer records covered by that authority, and the actual electronic records being transferred. These automatic links mean that information from the records schedule pre-populates a transfer request that is authorized by the schedule, and electronic records come into the archive with a rich set of automatically associated provenance metadata.

  • It streamlines access to Presidential records.
    The component for Presidential records supports review functionality for restrictions and redaction of restricted content, allowing the Archives to release Presidential records to the public when they become eligible for public request through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

  • It provides vastly improved support for preservation of electronic records.
    To support long term preservation of records and information about them, ERA incorporates a flexible, adaptable, standards-based XML metadata catalog, which includes PREMIS elements for preservation metadata. ERA incorporates a Transformation Framework that will provide flexible support for format migrations as needed. The Archives’ current policy is to maintain the records in the format in which they were transferred in addition to any transformed version.

  • The public has online access to more archival records than ever before.
    The Online Public Access (OPA) prototype is the National Archives’ online public portal to the permanent records of the Federal government. Currently, OPA includes descriptions of nearly 75% of our traditional holdings (textual records), 77% percent of our artifacts, and over 95% of our electronic records. In 2011, NARA introduced a tagging capability to the catalog, so researchers can add their tags to the over 400,000 digital copies also available through OPA. Additionally, the system provides a federated search to all of our archives.gov pages and the Presidential Library web pages so researchers will no longer need to perform separate searches for finding aids or other information related to our records.

    The OPA prototype currently provides access to nearly one million electronic records in the Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which are not available elsewhere online. For more information about OPA, please see our webpage at: http://www.archives.gov/research/search/about-opa.html.

Capabilities not included in ERA at this time:

  • ERA does not currently provide fully automated tools for moving electronic records into OPA, limiting the amount of records available in OPA.
    OPA today is not integrated with the archival repository of ERA. Publically accessible records, free of any access restrictions are loaded into OPA through other processes at NARA. Adaptations to ERA are planned to complete this integration, making the public accessibility of electronic records more timely.

    Researchers who need additional support to electronic records that are not available in OPA are encouraged to contact NARA’s archival reference staff for assistance in determining the location of these records and determining whether they can be reviewed in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.

  • Content-based search of electronic records in the Base instance of ERA is not yet in place.
    We do provide search of metadata associated with electronic records, but not the content.
  • Electronic preservation processing capability in ERA is not yet occurring.
    Although a framework has been developed into ERA, we have not yet converted records from one format into another, although the basic capability to do so has been designed into the system. However, most of the records that ERA contains are still easily usable with currently available hardware and software.

    A primary goal of ERA was to provide a basic/standard level of preservation in terms of providing for safe storage of the original bits, and the capture of technical, provenance and event history metadata. This functionality is in place.
  • Access restriction review and redaction capabilities for Federal records in ERA is not yet in place.
    ERA Base does not provide any capability to change existing restrictions on electronic records, or to redact partially-restricted records. NARA is using other system for this functionality.

How will ERA change over time?

  • Although development of ERA ended at the end of September 2011, ERA will always be evolving to deal with changes and advancements in technology. The current operations and maintenance contract allows us to fix problems and adapt the system to better meet the needs of NARA, the Federal government, and researchers over time.
  • The process for identifying and prioritizing adaptations or enhancements to ERA is managed by technical experts in NARA, with input received through surveys and focus groups with Federal agency records managers who use ERA in order to capture agency needs on the list of potential enhancements. Suggested enhancements are assessed for their benefit and alignment with strategic goals. These are then prioritized to select the next enhancements that should be made, as resources allow.

  • Enhancements identified were clustered into 5 major themes for the continued improvement of ERA:

1. Improve the public’s ability to access electronic records through the Online Public Access (OPA) system;

2. Make the record submission processes more streamlined, scalable, reliable and flexible;

3. Improve advanced search and review tools for NARA staff;

4. Improve processes for capturing, storing, and updating metadata in ERA; and

5. Improve ERA architecture to promote more scalable, evolvable, and cost-effective storage and records management services.

  • Enhancements to ERA are expected to be created in an incremental fashion, by structuring each enhancement as a mini-project. This approach allows us to track and measure our progress on each task, and allows us to release enhancements on a regular basis. The detailed schedule for these enhancements is currently being developed.

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Page Last Updated: 09/30/13

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