NARA's digital archive falters as others soar

Consultant Frank A. McDonough offers three examples of electronic archives that outshine NARA's troubled effort to preserve government records.

Consultant Frank A. McDonough is former deputy associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Intergovernmental Solutions.

The National Archives and Records Administration’s mission is to look backward and preserve the past records of the federal government. As a result, it operates under the radar because only former government employees and historians care much about the past.

For decades, the agency has promised to bring forward a plan and program to preserve the electronic records of the past. Periodically, Congress will waken from its slumber on archival issues and ask for a status report. Periodically, NARA officials will drag out previous responses and promise that success is on the way, although it never is despite spending lots of money on the initiative.

In addition to preserving the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, NARA is responsible by law for preserving the billions of pages of e-mail messages, memos, electronic documents and files created by agencies. NARA’s solution is to set up an electronic archive, which would allow searchers to find and access records online regardless of which computer or software created the records.

Lockheed Martin, a weapons manufacturer, won a contract in 2005 worth $317 million to create a modern archive for electronic records. Six years later, in early 2011, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Electronic Records Archives program was behind schedule and could eventually cost $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion. Furthermore, the agency’s inspector general reported that when the system is implemented, users will only be able to search based on a document's subject line, not content.

GAO delivered its usual obscure impression of the reasons why the system is failing, citing weak oversight and planning by NARA. No one at NARA paid a penalty for the troubled program or the 400 percent cost overrun, nor did Lockheed Martin. In responding to the GAO report, the archivist of the United States agreed with the findings but disagreed with the future cost estimates.

While NARA plods ahead with Lockheed Martin, several related projects have overtaken what the agency and its contractor have been trying to do for six years. Here are three of them.

  • The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, recognizing that it did not have the technology to make patent information available to the public, decided to turn over 7 million patents to Google to put online and thereby meet two goals: give the public access and allow the agency to meet the president’s mandate for more transparency in government.
  • Then there is the Google Books Library Project, an enhanced card catalog of the world's books. For this project, Google is working with publishers and libraries to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalog of all books in all languages to help users discover new and out-of-print books and help publishers discover new readers.
  • Moreover, there is IBM’s Watson project, in which a team of about 20 core researchers fed libraries containing books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauruses, databases, taxonomies, and even movie scripts, novels and plays into a supercomputer. Then they added more than 100 multiple expert analyzers running concurrently to appraise millions, perhaps billions, of possibilities with the goal of responding to a question with the correct answer in two seconds or less.

One wonders why NARA continues doing business with a weapons manufacturer when companies with the resources and skills to tackle similar challenges have demonstrated exceptional progress in taming the world’s inventory of information.

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