The ERA: Technology to Aid Archivists and Historians
Winter 2005, Vol. 37, No. 4
Technology to Aid Archivists and Historians
By Clyde Relick
That Rick Rogers majored in history in college should come as no surprise. His grandfather was the noted 20th-century historian Winthrop S. Hudson, who wrote widely on religion in America, and Rogers had always "loved and appreciated history."
Now, Rogers, chief executive officer of Fenestra Technologies in Germantown, Maryland, is part of the Lockheed Martin team that has been chosen by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to build the Electronic Records Archives (ERA)—a repository of 21st-century history.
"I consider it a real blessing to be able to apply my professional experience in research-driven software development to a project that means so much to my personal passion for history," Rogers said.
As the metadata subject matter expert, Rogers will focus on making sure ERA is search-friendly and able to produce the correct results for search applications. His presence on the team represents Lockheed Martin's commitment to hear the voices of archivists and historians and to incorporate their input into all of its ongoing design and building activities.
Not everyone at Lockheed Martin can claim a historian in his or her lineage, but we all share an enthusiasm for the program that will enable the preservation of electronic records for the U.S. Government—and most likely for governments and organizations around the world—for many generations to come.
The technological challenge posed by ERA is indeed historic in scope.
Not since the post–World War II era, when the government was awash with paper records that needed to be appraised, preserved, and made available, has there been a greater need for bold new ideas for processing records and building the archives.
That era spawned the lifecycle approach to records management, developed by the National Archives and Records Service, NARA's forerunner, that to this day remains the foundation for records management practices. ERA will not replace this approach but rather expand upon it and equip it to handle electronic records, which pose a new set of collection, preservation, storage, authenticity, and accessibility challenges.
There can be no doubt that meeting these challenges is essential to the future of the nation. This isn't news to Prologue readers, of course. What is news—and will continue to be news-is the functionality and convenience that ERA will deliver to help all stakeholders, from archivists and records managers to researchers of all types, perform their tasks more effectively.
The ERA solution that NARA is delivering with the Lockheed Martin team will take the challenge of archiving digital records and transform it into a powerful system that strengthens nearly every aspect of the recordkeeping architecture. Here's how:
The Design Process
First, ERA is not a technology solution but rather an archival solution made possible by technology. The Lockheed Martin team identified the need to preserve this concept from the moment we saw that ERA was an initiative to which we should make a major resource commitment. We assembled a team of partners who are world class in their respective domains, including records management, archives construction, metadata format development, and historical research. We also reached out to the archival community and government agency records managers before and during the design competition phase of the program, and we will continue to do so as we build and deliver our solution.
A key member of our team is Gregory S. Hunter, a professor of library and information science at Long Island University and a senior consultant at History Associates Inc. of Rockville, Maryland, one of the Lockheed Martin ERA team partners. Dr. Hunter, known within our team as the "universal translator," has been an important asset in bridging the realms of technology and records management and helping our technical engineers understand the requirements and work processes of archivists and other stakeholders. He has helped ensure that we have been asking the right questions of the right people.
Throughout the design process, we met with groups of subject matter experts from the archival community, agency records managers, archives users, and representatives of corporate and state archives.
We attended meetings of the major archival professional organizations, seeking to understand the challenges for digital records preservation from the archivists' perspective. We conducted working sessions with archivists and agency records managers on our user interface, obtaining extensive feedback that has been integrated into our design.
The product of this process is a straightforward system design organized around the archival mission in a way that will allow archivists and other system users to understand the architecture immediately and use it effectively.
Answering the Toughest Questions
While we were reaching out to understand users' needs, we also were focused on some of the major technical challenges of the program. We recognized that in essence ERA could be considered another archival facility, not unlike the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., or the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
ERA, however, will exist in a digital realm, not as bricks and mortar but as a "facility" in which archivists around the United States work together to describe, preserve, and provide access to the nation's enduring records. But designing such a "facility" requires answering the toughest questions first.
In what format do we preserve digital records? How do we handle the volume of records that need to be processed? How will records be transferred between the records producers and NARA? How will we make the records searchable and usable? How will we ensure that classified records and those with sensitive information are properly handled and secured? How can archivists best leverage information technologies to support their activities?
We focused on these questions because we knew that answering them correctly would help us ensure that the ultimate design addressed the concerns and met the needs of the user community. One of the design features we developed through this process was a records catalog written in the highly flexible extensible markup language (XML) format. XML captures all of the relationships between records and collections in such a way that they can be accessed and reconstructed independent of any particular hardware or software product.
In other words, you won't need a Wang word processor or WordStar software (remember them?) to view a digital record created in the 1980s. Projecting forward in time, researchers will not need to have today's office and e-mail products to view today's records in a distant tomorrow.
This is vital, of course, because the electronic records universe consists of some 4,800 different formats, ranging from word-processing documents to e-mail to geospatial information system (GIS) files. This current set of formats is certain to grow as the commercial industry fields new products that support the government's activities. While an important consideration in converting documents created in these varied formats into a universally accessible form is that the authenticity of the documents be preserved, it is also important that the approach have the agility to support the public's access to those new and as yet undefined formats. Our solution provides for a framework that allows insertion of digital conversion adapters, certified by archivists, to ensure the new digital formats are both authentic and accessible.
One feature of these adaptation frameworks is that they will allow NARA to handle future formats and continually improve upon the data conversion process. Another important feature is the flexibility the frameworks provide for conducting records searches. The system allows users to customize searches to their needs, whether they are archivists, legal researchers, or genealogists.
What It All Means
Ultimately, how will ERA impact the work of stakeholders in the archives and records management world?
Profoundly—because the system touches every step in the records lifecycle.
Positively—because it will allow users to focus more time on high-value tasks, such as appraisal decisions and archival descriptions, while making routine tasks quicker and easier to accomplish.
ERA can never replace archivists or records managers; there is simply too much human knowledge and judgment involved in their roles. But it can support the archivists by making previously developed knowledge more readily available and by bringing the knowledge and experiences of the originating agencies and NARA closer together.
At the front end of the records lifecycle, for example, NARA enters into more than 1,000 records schedule agreements every year with government agencies. A tremendous amount of knowledge has been developed through the formulation of these agreements, yet it is difficult to share that knowledge because the schedule information is predominately paper based. With ERA, agency records managers will be able to know in an instant how similar types of records were organized and scheduled in the past—not just within their own agencies but across the entire government domain.
Thus, when agency representatives are confronted with a new record type, they can exploit the experiences of other agencies to assist them with the preparation of a new records schedule agreement that addresses their records. In addition, the system identifies the individuals who made those determinations, provides contact information, and provides a means to share information and draw upon the support of those with specialized experiences.
The same is true for archivists, who can use the collaboration features within the design to interact with colleagues (including those within NARA, at the different federal agencies, or other stakeholders or centers of expertise) and discuss the meaning and importance of the records they are appraising or describing. These features are part of a conscious decision made by our team to ensure that the ERA solution does not result in professional isolation but rather encourages users to reach out to colleagues for human-to-human conversations, assisted by technology.
It is also important to note that ERA is an incremental solution. As elements of the system are put into place, they will be flexible and adaptable to future needs. This is not to say, however, that ERA can meet every need and deliver every desirable feature. As with all human endeavors, resource constraints will require NARA's ERA program office to make cost-benefit decisions that ensure we are developing a capability that meets all of the essential requirements but is feasible within the resources provided for it.
Lockheed Martin is no stranger to historically important events. The corporation and its heritage companies have helped take humans to the moon, built spacecraft that revealed secrets of the universe, developed defense technologies that helped win the Cold War, and designed aircraft that have expanded the envelope of aviation technology since the birth of the industry.
Moreover, for Lockheed Martin, the ERA project represents yet another instance in which it has tackled some of the nation's largest and most complex technical challenges, which in the modern age have increasingly centered on information technologies.
Lockheed Martin embraces opportunities such as ERA because we recognize that they are critical to preserving and strengthening our democracy.
Clyde Relick, director of Lockheed Martin's ERA program, has extensive experience on programs similar to ERA in scope, content, technology infusion, and criticality. His work has focused on new technology utilization, software development, and database design. He holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in industrial engineering.