The Record - March 1998
The Electronic Document Highway
Lisa B. Weber, Editor
NARA Provides Web Access to Descriptions of Current Government Records
By William G. LeFurgy
The Federal government creates vast quantities of records. Varied and complex, these records include Presidential orders, executive briefings, tax returns, personnel files, regulatory case files, scientific and economic data, investigation files, and mail—both in paper and electronic form. All government agencies from the largest to the smallest create official records, which are critical to document the rights of citizens, the actions of Federal officials, and the national experience.
The volume and intricacy of Federal records can make them hard to understand and difficult to locate. The National Archives and Records Administration recently launched a prototype electronic system to help address this problem. The system is known as the Agency Records Disposition Online Resource (ARDOR). Currently, ARDOR provides details on the records of about 40 agencies that have volunteered to participate.
NARA is using ARDOR to explore improved methods for gathering and using information about management of the Federal government's records. In particular, ARDOR will help identify customer needs for developing more advanced systems for controlling and tracking the Federal government's records. The available data, although limited, is also useful for individual citizens in understanding how government documents its functions and obligations. ARDOR is one initiative in NARA's ongoing commitment to help the American people inspect for themselves the record of what government has done.
NARA and Management of Federal Records
NARA has the unique responsibility to ensure that government agencies preserve and make available their records for as long as necessary to meet official needs, as well as the needs of the public. NARA meets this need by overseeing records management programs in Federal agencies. A key part of this work involves a three-step process known as records disposition.
First, agencies identify and describe individual file units and systems (also known as records series) and recommend how long to keep them. The results of this activity are submitted to NARA as draft records disposition schedules. Second, NARA archivists appraise the value of the records noted on the schedules. This appraisal is used to decide what eventually happens to the records; possibilities range from immediate disposal to permanent preservation. The Archivist of the United States ultimately makes this decision by officially approving records disposition schedules. Third, agencies implement approved schedules by following the disposition instructions for each records series.
The approved records schedules for a Federal agency are then in effect both an official listing of file units and systems as well as a plan for how long those units and systems will be kept. Such information is useful to Federal records managers, who can develop new or revised schedules based on those for related records in other agencies. Schedules are also valuable to researchers and public interest groups that wish to learn what kinds of records are available for specific government agencies and functions.
Despite their value, there has until recently been no easy way to make records schedules widely available. The process for developing schedules has traditionally been decentralized among hundreds of Federal agencies and agency offices. This results in the generation of thousands of individual schedules that may cover a single records series or dozens of series. More significantly, records scheduling has for many years been a paper-based process. Approved schedules typically exist in paper form in the agencies and at NARA, which limits the degree to which they can be distributed and used.
With the growth of computer use in Federal offices, however, some agencies
are maintaining an electronic version of their schedules, most commonly as word
processing files. In May 1996, NARA began a prototype project to acquire electronic
copies of agency schedules and place them on an internal system for staff use.
Several agencies readily agreed to provide electronic versions of their schedules,
staff converted the schedules to Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) for viewing
with a World Wide Web browser, and ARDOR was born.
Agency records managers quickly became interested in ARDOR because they wished to have access to schedules for a variety of other agencies. Interest increased still further when a full-text search engine was added; for the first time this enabled keyword searching of schedules. NARA was able to accommodate about 50 external users through special technical arrangements, but it was soon clear that a broader means of access to the system was appropriate. Many Federal records managers wanted access, as did archivists and records managers for states and localities. Public interest groups also expressed strong interest. Accordingly, NARA made ARDOR available on the web in December 1997.
The system now includes records schedules for about 40 agencies. Several agencies not now represented in ARDOR have provided NARA with electronic copies of their schedules, and these documents will be available on the system shortly. It is expected that many more agencies will wish to participate in the future. NARA will also work with agencies to have ARDOR reflect additions and changes to posted schedules.
Users have two basic methods to find information in ARDOR. They can use the system's main table of contents to locate information about a specific agency or unit within an agency. From within a particular document, users can click on hyperlinks—highlighted words or phrases that link to other related documents—to view additional information. The second way to find information is to search the entire collection for a specific word, phrase, or other expression. A search engine will then list all the documents in the system that match the requested search terms. Each listed item in the "search results" consists of the document title hyperlinked to the full document.
ARDOR is a beginning effort to assemble a central repository of online information about Federal recordkeeping. As a prototype, ARDOR has limitations. There is no intent, now or in the future, to cover all Federal agencies, or provide schedules for all records of agencies that are included. In addition, ARDOR is strictly a reference tool and does not serve as an authoritative source for records schedules. NARA partners with agencies to keep the system as accurate and up to date as possible, but the technological infrastructure needed to assure complete accuracy does not yet exist. All users must consult official agency records schedules for authoritative disposition information. ARDOR provides the name and address of the agency records management officer (or other designated individual) for each posted schedule.
As detailed in Ready Access to Essential Evidence: The Strategic Plan of the National Archives and Records Administration, 1997-2007, a principal NARA goal is to improve significantly how Federal records are created, identified, maintained, and scheduled. ARDOR will contribute to this goal by helping identify and refine user needs for records disposition information. This will in turn assist NARA's work in building a comprehensive and mature records life cycle information system.
A future life cycle information system will, most likely, replace ARDOR as the centrally available source of information about Federal records schedules. An intent of this future system also is to support an electronic means for the submission, review, and approval of agency records schedules. Once fully operational, such a process would enable significant productivity gains as well as major enhancements in NARA's ability to use and provide access to records disposition information. Apart from the work in developing its own system, NARA will also work with Federal agencies to establish and implement standards for creating and maintaining records schedules and other sources of records disposition information.
As the future unfolds, NARA plans to use information technology aggressively to improve the management of and access to Federal records. In doing so, NARA will seek to meet the needs of its varied customers, including Federal agency records managers, the research community, and the public. ARDOR is a step in this direction.
William LeFurgy is Supervisor, Life Cycle Management Division at NARA