Prologue Magazine

The ERA: An Archives of the Future and for the Future

Spring 2004, Vol. 36, No. 1

John W. Carlin

Archivist of the United States


Logo for the Electronic Records Archives (ERA)Most of you as Prologue readers are familiar with the historical documents of our nation that are part of NARA's holdings. You've read about them and seen images of them in this magazine, in our other publications, on our web site, and elsewhere.

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights (known collectively as the Charters of Freedom) are the most famous ones. But there are also important acts of Congress, Supreme Court decisions, patent applications, presidential executive orders, treaties, and many more.

Although we take very seriously our stewardship of these precious documents, much of our work centers on our role as the government's keeper of the records created by federal agencies and departments in their day-to-day activities.

However, while billions of pages of paper records continue to come to us, more and more of the records we get from federal agencies are the products of electronic government. In fact, we're seeing an explosion in the number of electronic text documents, financial presentations, photographs and images, e-mails, and web sites.

This presents a major challenge for us: How to preserve these electronic records so that many years from now, when the hardware and software used to create them no longer exist, they can still be read.

It's a challenge we simply must meet.

If we don't, the records our government is creating every day will be lost forever. Records of service members now in the Middle East who will need them in twenty-five or thirty years to claim veterans' benefits would be lost. So would Food and Drug Administration records that document adverse reactions to drugs. And the Social Security Administration will need your file for several generations until all potential claims are exhausted.

This is why we're building the Electronic Records Archives (ERA)—so that anyone, anywhere, anytime, far into the future, can access these records with the technology in use then.

Moreover, while ERA will preserve the electronic records of our national government, it will also have another important benefit. It will provide information technology that can be scaled and adapted for use outside the federal government.

That means that state and local governments, colleges and universities, libraries and archives, small businesses and large corporations, and many other sectors of our society will be able to benefit from the federal expenditures made on ERA. They will be able to preserve their electronic records for as long as they need them and archive them in any way they choose.

Indeed, the technology we develop for the ERA could have an impact around the world, as it is adapted to other kinds of institutions not found in the United States—even in countries that approach recordkeeping far differently than we do.

To plan for the ERA, we reached out to users of all kinds.

During 2003, in Washington and around the country, we met with and listened to potential users—records managers, archivists, information resource managers, librarians, chief information officers, historians, legal and general researchers, genealogists, computer scientists, and professors. We also conducted an extensive series of meetings with potential contractors to help us refine the requirements of the ERA.

Bids for the design phase of the ERA were due at the end of January, and by summer we will award one or two design contracts and give those two companies roughly a year to come up with a design for the ERA. Then we'll pick one company to build the ERA. The first increment of the operational ERA is scheduled to be online in 2007, with four more increments in each of the following years.

From the start, our research efforts for the ERA have involved important partners. They include the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California at San Diego, the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), the National Center for Supercomputer Applications at the University of Illinois, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center at Stanford University, and the Information Technology Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Also, we now have an in-house Virtual Archives Laboratory at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, built in partnership with the University of Maryland's Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and the San Diego Supercomputer Center. The Virtual Lab allows our staff to experiment with technology that may be used for ERA.

Even as we work to develop the ERA, we are moving ahead to make more records available online and to provide more online tools to locate other records in our holdings.

We launched Access to Archival Databases (AAD), the first publicly available tool developed and funded under the ERA program. AAD provides direct online access to a selection of nearly fifty million historic electronic records created by more than twenty federal agencies.

We completed development of the data-entry portion of our Archival Research Catalog, which already contains online descriptions of about 20 percent of our records. With the new system, we can speed the process of making more descriptions of records available online.

We partnered with other agencies in the new web site,, which makes the federal rulemaking process more accessible to citizens who want to comment on proposed regulations.

And we signed an agreement with the Government Printing Office to ensure that documents now available on the GPO web site,, will remain available permanently. Among those are two NARA publications, the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations.

At the same time we're planning for a permanent nationwide online archives for electronic records, we're also updating a government recordkeeping system that was developed in a paper environment but is no longer workable.

After collecting and analyzing information about records management practices throughout the government, we adopted goals to ensure that federal agencies could economically and effectively create and manage records they need to do business and preserve all records for as long as needed.

To do that, we gave agencies the flexibility to manage their records how they use them. After all, it's more important that an agency has the records it needs when it needs them rather than a textbook records management program that may not serve its needs.

We are also helping federal agencies through our electronic Records Management Initiative. This initiative is one of twenty-four Administration e-Government initiatives aimed at making it simpler and less costly to deliver government services to citizens. With our partners, we are providing the guidance and tools agencies need to manage their records in electronic form.

As we design new ways of recordkeeping for new kinds of records, we are keeping foremost in mind our mandate to preserve for future generations these records—the story of America and the story of its citizens.

That's why we're spending so much time and staff resources redesigning federal records management and developing an electronic archives not only of the future, but for the future—because we serve not only today's Americans, but the generations of Americans to come.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.