NARA's Leadership in the Digital Decade

By David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has recently published its first comprehensive digitization policy. It is bold and aspirational as well as grounded in the experience of decades of archival practices that have provided access and preservation. All of the experience, knowledge, and skills of our staff informed the drafting of our policy.

NARA first developed and published a digitization strategy in 2011 (updated in 2014) in order to provide a comprehensive, system-wide approach to its digitizing activities. The strategy recognized five paths for digitization: partnerships, crowdsourcing, agency transfers, digitization as part of the archival process, and internal lab projects. The strategy also references a set of guiding principles for digitization partnership projects.

With its strategic plan, NARA has committed to digitize 500 million pages of records and make them available online to the public through the National Archives Catalog by 2024. This goal will be accomplished through the paths outlined in the strategy, which are supported by our new policy.

After much internal conversation, review, and revising, we published our new digitization policy in November 2019. Some of the highlights of the policy include:

  • recognizing that digitizing is part of the archival process,
  • establishing digitization technical standards and requirements,
  • confirming our existing descriptive metadata standards,
  • clarifying roles and responsibilities,
  • ensuring that digital copies and metadata created are made available through the National Archives Catalog for digital use and reuse, and
  • providing guidance for short and long-term storage of digital files.

Benefits of and objectives for this policy include:

  • increased public access to NARA holdings while preserving and protecting analog holdings, and
  • ensuring preservation of digitized assets, including digital copies and associated metadata through inclusion in the NARA Catalog and storage in ERA 2.0.

The issuance of this new policy follows on the September release of NARA’s Digital Preservation Framework for public comment. This framework encompasses two years of work to ensure that NARA is ready for the government-wide shift from paper to all-electronic recordkeeping. Our work is guided by NARA’s strategic plan and its 2017 Digital Preservation Strategy and informs the continuing development of ERA 2.0, the agency’s cloud-based electronic record processing and preservation infrastructure.

The framework is a formalized a set of documents that describe how NARA identifies risks to digital files and prioritizes them for action, and it lays out specific plans for the preservation of these many file formats. A Risk Matrix documents the preservation risk of digital file formats. The File Format Preservation Action Plans map to record types (e.g., datasets and databases, email, video and audio, textual) and include recommended preservation migration actions, links to specifications and other resources, and proposed tools for processing and preservation migrations.

We released the Digital Preservation Framework on GitHub for public comment, and we will update the framework in 2020.

This process allows NARA staff, agency stakeholders, the public, and experts in the archival and preservation fields to weigh in and assist in creating the standard for digital preservation in the Federal Government. NARA is also ensuring that its process for identifying and mitigating risk in electronic records is as transparent as possible.

By planning carefully, working collaboratively, and leveraging emerging technologies, I am proud to say that we were able to upload more digital copies into the Catalog last year than in the previous decade of the project. We have over 100 million digital objects in the Catalog, and we are on track for getting to our goal of 500 million by 2024.

In conjunction with digitization and ongoing stewardship of its born-digital records holdings, NARA has also focused on the digital use and re-use of these records. Our records are available on over 25 platforms across the web, including DPLA and Wikipedia. Our records on partner platforms consistently garner over two billion views each year.

This incredible digital access to our holdings would not exist without digital copies of our records. The digitization policy provides corporate guidance for our digitization efforts across the agency, supports our strategic goals, and documents our bold intentions for our digital future. The digital preservation strategy and framework ensures that both digitized and born-digital records are available to the American people. The two together are critical to Make Access Happen.

Posted: December 19, 2019
Tagged: From the Archivist of the US, Around the Profession