In its initial stage, the new system will support the basic process of determining how long Federal agencies need to keep records and whether the records should be preserved in the National Archives afterwards. ERA will support this process for all Federal records, whether they are paper, film, electronic, or other media. In July, the National Archives will start moving approximately three and a half million computer files into ERA. These historically-valuable electronic records range from databases about World War II soldiers to the State Department's central files on foreign affairs. The records eventually will be accessible online in ERA.
ERA is a multi-year project spearheaded by the National Archives and Lockheed Martin, the development contractor, to create a ‘permanent' solution for the ever-changing challenge of preserving electronic records. Because new formats of electronic records are constantly being created and older formats become obsolete quickly, the ‘permanent' solution cannot be a one-time fix. It has to be a dynamic system which can grow to accommodate ever-increasing volumes, be extended to deal with new formats, and evolve to enable records on obsolete formats to be accessed on new computers. The goal is to enable researchers 50 or 100 years from now to find and retrieve electronic records using the best technology available to them, regardless of what hardware or software was used to create them. ERA will also move record keeping out of filing cabinets and into cyberspace. It provides a foundation for the National Archives and all other Federal agencies to perform business transactions online to improve the way government records are organized, stored, and retrieved. Besides the direct benefit to government, these capabilities will make it easier for citizens to discover what records the government has and to access them.
In making the announcement, Professor Weinstein said "There has been a race against technology as we watch software become obsolete almost as soon as it is installed in our computers. All of us have stored personal memories or favorite music on 8-track tapes, floppy disks, or 8 mm film. In many cases, these technologies are now relics and we have no way to access the stored information. Imagine this problem multiplied millions and millions of times—that's what the Federal government is facing today. But thanks to ERA," he continued, "the technology for preserving electronic records is finally beginning to catch up with the technology for creating them. This Initial Operating Capability is a crucial step in ensuring that our recent history will be saved."
The ERA development has been shaped by extensive dialogue with stakeholders both inside the Federal government and around the world. Four Federal partners, who have been instrumental in testing the system, will start using ERA in September: the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the National Oceanographic Office, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Valuable input from these partners has been used to fine-tune the system.
The National Archives also has received ongoing counsel from the Advisory Committee on ERA which is chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act to advise the Archivist of the United States on technical, mission, and service issues related to ERA. Its members include experts in archives, records management, libraries, computer science, history, and the law, including representatives of other Federal agencies and of state governments.
Chairman of the Advisory Committee on ERA and co-inventor of the Internet Dr. Robert Kahn said "The Internet has made it possible for people using a computer to instantly communicate across continents and around the world. When the full system is deployed, ERA will make it possible for people to access U.S. government information across generations."
Andrew Patrichuk, Lockheed Martin Vice President for Civil Mission Solutions, said "The Electronic Records Archives system being developed by the National Archives and Lockheed Martin is enormously important to this nation. In the future, corporations, other governments and institutions around the world will benefit from the foundation that ERA sets today."
In the next stage, already under development, ERA will provide the capability to absorb massive quantities of Presidential electronic files from the Bush Administration when the President leaves office in January, 2009.
In 2010, the National Archives intends to make the system available to the public. Ultimately, the Archives expects the system to be able to preserve and provide access to ever-increasing volumes of important electronic records of the Federal government, even long after the hardware and software used to create them has become obsolete.