Leslie Johnston is Director of Digital Preservation at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington DC, USA

The Strategic Plan for the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration outlines a vision to ensure ongoing access to government information. Digital preservation is crucial for this work, as evidenced by the June 2019 direction (M-19-21, Transition to Electronic Records) to Federal agencies to transition to a fully electronic government and to end the National Archives’ acceptance of analog records after December 31, 2022.

The Strategic Plan also embraces an Open NARA, one that is both transparent about its operations and participates in an open community where it can learn from the insights of other organizations. As part of achieving that goal, NARA has released its Digital Preservation Framework for public comment. The release of this framework will allow NARA staff, federal agencies, the public, and our colleagues in the archival and preservation communities to weigh in and assist us in creating the standard for digital preservation in the U.S. Federal government. We want to ensure that both our process for identifying and mitigating risk in the electronic records that we preserve and make accessible and the decisions that we have made are as transparent as possible.

Our digital preservation framework includes two parts: a Risk and Prioritization Matrix and Preservation Action Plans. The risk matrix is used to measure the preservation risk of digital file formats. The matrix asks a series of questions about the ability to preserve and sustain a file format, and generates a numeric score. The answers to each question have a different level of impact (positive or negative) on a format’s risk level, to help us identify how much we know about a format and what impacts our ability to preserve and provide access to it. Another set of questions help us assign a priority for preservation need based on the level of risk and out current capacity for working with those formats.

Every file format in the risk matrix is also covered in a Preservation Action Plan. These plans correspond to the record types (email, digital video, digital audio, etc.) in the NARA Transfer Guidance which outlines preferred and acceptable file formats for the transfer of electronic records from agencies (https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/policy/transfer-guidance-tables.html). Each plan contains a list of Essential Characteristics (aka Significant Properties), which identify the Appearance, Behavior, Context, and Structure characteristics that should, if possible, be retained in a format migration. These characteristics are essential to identifying the level of fidelity of a proposed migration. Each plan also contains a list of related file formats currently identified in our holdings and identifies:

  • Current Risk Rating and Prioritization Rating
  • Links to specifications and documentation
  • Recommended preservation migration actions, including no action when appropriate
  • Recommended tools for processing and preservation migrations
  • NARA Transfer Guidance for this Record Type
  • Identification of the formats most often provided to researchers through reference requests and through the National Archives Catalog.

We have started with the formats that are currently in our holdings, and will extend the plans to cover formats that agencies identify in their records which are scheduled to be transferred to NARA.

The Framework is available at https://github.com/usnationalarchives/digital-preservation.  We encourage everyone to view and participate in the public review. Please use the Issues discussion feature in Github to leave comments or questions, or to participate in a discussion. The framework will be open for comment until the extended deadline of November 15, 2019. After that time, we will take all the feedback and update the matrix and plans incorporating the comments. The final versions will be publicly released as linked data in 2020, and updated with new file formats on an ongoing basis.

With our increasingly all-electronic government, preserving and ensuring access to born-digital and digitized public government records brings greater meaning to the American experience. Our dedication to transparency in our digital preservation decisions and processes is critical to assure the public about the authenticity of the records they need to research the history of their families, the work of our government, and our country.

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