National Archives Will Go Digital

WASHINGTON -- The National Archives--home of the centuries-old parchment bearing the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights--is getting an electronic filing system.

The Electronic Records Archives is scheduled to open by 2007, offering a huge Internet-enabled system of databases that will store the growing torrent of electronic government documents. It is expected to be completed in 2011, after the last of seven stages of construction, encompassing several petabytes (a million gigabytes) of data.

At a ceremony this week announcing the two finalists vying for the contract, a sign next to the podium read: "Two nationally known companies will compete to design a system that will capture electronic information, preserve it forever and make it accessible at any time, from any place."

All this work isn't just for posterity's sake.

Eclectic Collection

Aside from the nation's most hallowed historic documents, the Archives also keeps such things as service records of military veterans, electronic cable files from the State Department, weapons systems designs, and documentation on homeland security issues. It is responsible for any kind of record created by any entity in the federal government.

And increasingly, these records are made of bits and bytes--like the two (total) e-mail messages President Bill Clinton wrote while in office: one a test and the other responding to an e-mail sent to him from space by Senator John Glenn.

"The fact is that much of the electronic information of the late 20th and 21st centuries will be lost or unusable if the problems of saving electronic information over time aren't solved," said Reynolds Cahoon, the Archives chief information officer, at the finalist announcement.

The agency now uses standard magnetic tape to store the growing number of electronic records. These records also include document imaging files of "physical holdings" such as the Bill of Rights.

Security Concerns

The new system will store data at several sites around the country and will be accessible through a single Internet "front door." Security will be maintained using an elaborate schedule of user authorization levels, some of them based on the security clearances of users, says Ken Thibodeau, Electronic Records Archives director.

"The security of the new system is a huge concern to us," Thibodeau says. "The Archives keeps a vast amount of private data, from trade secrets to national security information."

How the project finalists propose safeguarding the data is key to winning the contract, Thibodeau adds. He won't reveal anything specific about the vendors' plans.

The winning bids came from Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Maryland, and Harris of Melbourne, Florida. Both companies will build a system over the next year from which the Archives will choose a winner. To make the decision, the Archives will work with many of the government agencies, such as the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, that have traditionally entrusted their documents to the Archives.

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