Aug 30 2021

NARA Focuses on Expanding Access to Digital Records

By fiscal year 2026, the National Archives and Records Administration wants to digitize 500 million pages of government records and make them available online.

The future of federal government records is electronic, and the agency in charge of managing their collection has big plans to maximize agencies’ access to them.

By Dec. 31, 2022, agencies need to transition their business processes and record keeping to a fully electronic environment. After that date, the National Archives and Records Administration will no longer accept paper records.

On Aug. 6, NARA released a draft of its 2022-2026 Strategic Plan and asked for comments from agencies and the public by Aug. 20. The plan lays out the agency’s goals over the next five years and plots out its future as a manager of digital records widely accessible to the public.

“We are reaching beyond the traditional role of making records available for others to discover,” the plan states. “We are instead making access happen by delivering increasing volumes of records to the American public online, using flexible tools and accessible resources that promote public participation. We are engaging with underserved communities to find opportunities to expand public participation and promote equity through our mission.”

To do so, NARA acknowledges it “must digitize millions of records we hold in analog formats, keep pace with the continuous stream of new records we receive each year, and develop new ways to help citizens find our records through the online National Archives Catalog.”

By fiscal year 2026, the agency has a goal of digitizing 500 million pages of records and making them available online.

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NARA’s Path to a Digital Future

The challenges ahead for NARA are daunting. For now, the agency is sticking with the 2022 deadline to transition to electronic records, though it is gauging agencies’ ability to meet the deadline given the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

As Federal News Network reports, it is taking steps to support a larger volume of digital records, as well as standing up Electronic Records Archives 2.0, its program for scheduling, transferring and storing the electronic records it receives from agencies.

The volume of documents the agency still needs to digitize is tremendous. FedScoop reports:

The agency faces a vast challenge in cataloging existing digital and physical records that have yet to be processed. One former senior agency leader speaking to FedScoop described “literally stacks” of wooden pallets containing hard drives that have yet to be processed at the administration.

NARA notes in the plan that it is modernizing records management practices across the federal government, and is “advancing digital preservation of archival electronic records, and supporting the transition to digital government.”

The agency states it will “explore new technology to find low-cost, practical solutions to improve processing, access review and redaction, and digitization, to accelerate the delivery of electronic and digitized records to the public.”

By FY 2026, NARA has a goal of providing “policy, requirements, and oversight to support a transparent, inclusive, and fully digital government” and also aims to reduce the time it takes to start complex Freedom of Information Act requests for unclassified records.

Also by FY 2026, NARA aims to “advance existing physical and intellectual controls for the agency’s holdings to enable digital preservation risk planning and risk mitigation, and ongoing access to electronic records.”

DISCOVER: What are the key challenges to digital transformation in federal IT?

NARA is also seeking to improve its connection with underserved communities. According to the draft strategic plan, by fiscal year 2026, NARA aims to process “85 percent of archival holdings and increase enhanced descriptions to promote equity in discovery and public access to archival records related to underrepresented communities.”

By then, NARA states, it will collaborate with “traditionally underserved communities to correct outdated and anachronistic descriptions in the catalog and prioritize citizen engagement projects that increase access to records that are important to underserved communities.”

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