Building and Sustaining a Digital Preservation Program at NARA

This post was written by Elizabeth England and Leslie Johnston, Digital Preservation, Office of the Deputy Archivist of the United States.

On World Digital Preservation Day, it seems appropriate to share how NARA has developed its digital preservation program in recent years to ensure that the electronic records of the United States government truly are available, as declared in this year’s theme: “For All, For Good, Forever.”

In 2014, NARA launched an effort to rethink the Electronic Records Archive (ERA) system to modernize the processing and preservation of electronic records, both born-digital and digitized. The cloud-based ERA 2.0 digital preservation system went into production in 2018, with initial capabilities focused on establishing a new processing, storage, and preservation environment for NARA’s digital holdings. As part of this effort, in 2017 NARA turned the focus to overall strategies, creating a new Digital Preservation Program in the Office of the Deputy Archivist of the United States. NARA stood up an agency-wide Digital Preservation Group to help guide the Program, with representatives from across custodial units (Federal, Presidential, and Congressional), digitization, the General Counsel’s Office, IT, and units responsible for agency guidance and standards, and public access. This group continues to facilitate information sharing and relationship building across NARA, and is integral to the ongoing success of the Digital Preservation Program.

Leslie Johnston, Director of Digital Preservation, presenting about the ERA 2.0 digital preservation system

As part of the new digital preservation effort, NARA undertook an agency-wide digital preservation gap analysis to help identify areas of improvement in NARA’s capacity and capabilities. The gap analysis was lightly structured around the ISO 16363 standard for Trustworthy Digital Repositories, a leading international resource for auditing digital repositories.  Recognizing the gaps in our processes, documentation, and systems is a necessary tool to identify steps to prioritize policy revisions, updates to processes, and investment in the infrastructure. The results of the gap analysis led NARA to publish its first agency-wide Digital Preservation Strategy in 2017 to guide operations across all programs and locations and move forward with ERA 2.0 development. The Digital Preservation Strategy, updated in 2022, will continue to be updated on a five-year cycle, recognizing the agency’s accomplishments in this area and pushing for innovation and improvements.

Following this work, the Digital Preservation Program shifted focus to analyzing the electronic records in NARA’s holdings. Success of the Strategy depends upon ongoing analysis of the numbers and types of file formats across all NARA’s electronic records collections. This is only part of the process; assessing the risks and sustainability of these file formats enables NARA to plan how to manage the files and prioritize formats for actions, such as transforming an outdated format into one supported by current technologies. This risk assessment and preservation planning work is publicly available as NARA’s Digital Preservation Framework, currently covering more than 650 file format versions. Portions of the Digital Preservation Framework were recently released as a Linked Open Dataset, a first for NARA, enabling greater reuse and integration of the Digital Preservation Framework with other digital preservation resources.

Digital preservation programs require ongoing assessment: in 2019 and 2021, NARA completed internal self-assessments of programs and systems using the PTAB (Primary Trustworthy Digital Repository Authorisation Body) instrument based on ISO 16363. NARA continues to conduct self-assessments biennially, and work on the 2023 assessment of our current program capabilities and maturity has already started.

Having a coordinated, sustainable approach to digital preservation is necessary to meet the ongoing challenges of quickly changing technologies and the rapid growth of permanent electronic records in NARA’s custody. The Digital Preservation team in the Office of the Deputy Archivist has grown to a staff of three: Dara Baker, Senior Digital Preservation Analyst, and Elizabeth England, Senior Digital Preservation Specialist, have joined Leslie Johnston, Director of Digital Preservation. This has allowed the Program to start new initiatives, including development of an internal digital preservation training program, releasing the Digital Preservation Framework as Linked Data, formal representation on IT planning groups, and participation in a broader range of cross-agency groups. It is important to recognize who is working on digital preservation as the work is distributed across the agency:

  • The Digital Preservation Unit guides internal operations;
  • Agency Services provides external guidance, creation of Schedules, and records appraisal;
  • Archivists in Research Services, Presidential Libraries, and the Center for Legislative Archives accession, process, and describe records;
  • The Electronic Records Archives (ERA) team, responsible for the ongoing development and improvement of digital preservation tools and systems;
  • Digitization reformats records for preservation and creates surrogates for access;
  • IT Operations and IT Security monitor systems and storage status, and perform regular emergency system backup restoration tests;
  • The Office of Innovation provides public access through the National Archives Catalog; and
  • Agency leadership supports the work through policies and resources.

On this World Digital Preservation Day, we recognize that digital preservation is a team effort joining human expertise and effort with technology: it should not be seen solely as a technical problem, nor can the challenges be met by technology alone. NARA’s past, current, and future digital preservation is rooted in collaboration across the agency and with the larger international digital preservation community.