The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is forging ahead with its plans to digitize billions of documents, a project that will take years to complete and that already has faced criticism over out-of-control costs.
At the helm of this digital effort is Pamela Wright, the chief Digital Access Strategist for the archives. She’s been in this job for just a year, overseeing NARA’s internal and external web pages, social media efforts and Online Public Access (OPA) prototype, the public face of its electronic records archives.
“We are just at the beginning,” Wright said in an interview with Breaking Gov. “We have a drop in the bucket online right now. With an estimated 10 billion pages of textural materials alone, the work will be ongoing for some time.”
It’s a formidable task. Just 330,000 records are available online so far. But it’s enough to wet the public’s appetite for more.
Among the treasures online: Depression-era photos by Dorothea Lange, nature pictures by Ansel Adams, Confederate spy Rose Greenhow’s correspondence, World War II posters, the Emancipation Proclamation, illustrated Revolutionary War pension petitions and much more.
The archives launched the OPA prototype in December, a centralized, streamlined means of searching multiple National Archives resources in one place. To date, it’s received more than 100,000 visits.
But building the digital system from the ground up that preserves and provides public access to records has not been easy or cheap. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in February that the costs could balloon as high as $1.4 billion, and it warned the project go as much as 41 percent over budget.
While NARA agreed with many of the recommendations for improvement in the report, it said the GAO cost estimates were based on the belief that development of the system would continue through 2017, according to David Lake, the ERA communications manager. He said NARA actually will complete the development phase at the end of September, and he estimated the total cost of the system to that point will be $463 million.
NARA also is moving into the social media world in a big way. It’s created sites on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr, where archival photos clocked more than one million visits in the last 2 years.
In another groundbreaking move, NARA now has a Wikipedian in Residence to help expand Wikipedia’s access to Archival material.
In addition, NARA is seeking to simplify and make the digitalization process more efficient for the future by having all agencies of the federal government schedule and transfer their records electronically by the end of 2012.
A new Digitization Division also will be launched this fall, responsible for updating strategy and refining processes for all digitization efforts.
“As we continue to work toward increasing access to our records online, our goal is to delight online users with a rich website that is easy to use,” Wright said.
Lake said the task of creating a comprehensive electronic records system is an enormous undertaking, and will require NARA to be flexible and make adjustments as technology evolves.
“These electronic records need to be preserved in perpetuity. That means ERA is going to have to survive many changes in technology and software. It’s going to be a continuing process of evolution,” Lake said.
A sampling of just some of the 330,000 National Archives documents and photographs available to the public online for free, includes:
Dorothea Lange photographs
$7.2 million check to purchase Alaska from Russia in 1868