The human element
But as Deb Logan, an analyst at Gartner, points out, system readiness is one thing; human limitation is another. According to Logan, the onerous task will be sorting through the unclassified and unprocessed data that the Bush administration will leave behind. The fact is, she says, the federal government itself has insufficient records management practices and systems in place, which means they'll basically be dumping raw data on NARA.
"It would be one thing if the stuff had to be moved seamlessly to a records repository, but it's just eight years of stuff," she says. "It will be nearly impossible to get it under control without a massive expenditure of human resources because the technology is not there."
According to NARA, it took about 400 days to process just the 2TB of data it received from the Clinton administration. Since it had no system at the time, it archived this data by recreating the Clinton administration's computer systems that originally held the records -- 17 in all -- and developed simple search interfaces that NARA personnel could use to access requested information.
Logan says part of the blame lies with federal agencies themselves, pointing to a GAO survey that concluded federal agencies have failed across the board to fulfill their records management obligations, "not out of malice or neglect but out of the nature of the volume of electronic communications and the time frame in which they have to do it," she says. "Anyone who's putting an optimistic face on the job is not being realistic."
Optimism may be relevant from a technology point of view, she acknowledges, but not from an information management point of view. "From my side of NARA, I don't deal with what's in the records, just whether we can get them into the system," she notes. "We allow the library staff to deal with the content."
An unprecedented effort
The system itself had its challenges, which Thibodeau says are a natural outcome of creating a system the scope and scale of the ERA. After all, the system is not just intended to preserve presidential records.
Under the Federal Records Act, it also works with federal agencies to preserve all of their relevant records, which amounts to about 2% of all the records they create. These records are submitted, appraised and archived continuously, not in batch modes at the end of each term, as presidential records are.