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How COVID-19 Impacted Federal Digitization Efforts

NARA leveraged lessons learned from COVID-19 to accelerate records digitization.
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Leaders at the forefront of the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) digitization efforts are leveraging lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to accelerate the transition away from paper-based processes and launch new digital services.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed gaps in digital maturity across organizations and federal agencies, creating new backlogs and delaying modernization timelines. While in some ways COVID-19 accelerated the transition to digital government by adopting innovative technologies and shifting to a virtual environment, there have been new obstacles, like limited access to record centers, which have created new barriers.

“The biggest challenge of all was that the majority of digitization activities stopped once NARA facilities closed, except for emergency requests, in March 2020,” Denise Henderson, director of NARA’s Digitization Division in the Office of Research Services told GovCIO Media & Research. “But we looked at the pivot to remote work as an opportunity to focus on many of the ongoing projects in our queue.”

While imaging records must be done on-site, NARA discovered many steps in the overall digitization process — including processing images, creating metadata and completing quality control — could be done remotely. The agency took this opportunity to reduce backlogs of previously digitized information and make progress adding new digital content to NARA’s online catalog throughout the pandemic.

“Making new digital content available, as well as highlighting already available digital content, was key to connecting with our researchers and linking them to our holdings while access to our facilities has been restricted. COVID-19 caused a major shift in the world in so many ways. At NARA, it really made us think about our processes across the board, and digitization is one way to make our archival operations more effective and efficient,” Henderson said.

One of NARA’s major digitization projects during the pandemic has been preparing the 1950 Census for public release in 2022. NARA manages the census schedules on microfilm available from 1790 to 1940, and most have now been digitized by the agency’s digitization partners.

“Census data is restricted for 72 years, so everything we set up for this project was based on being on site: separate workstations in secure rooms only accessible to staff with appropriate clearances to work with census data,” Henderson said. “Once we went remote in March 2020, we had to reimagine how to do this work. How do you provide remote access to restricted data to a geographically dispersed workforce? It was a challenge we at NARA hadn’t really faced before.”

To support its newly remote workforce and keep pace with ongoing projects, NARA’s Digitization Division collaborated with the agency’s Information Services and General Counsel’s Office to develop and implement a new workflow that allowed its workforce to remotely access secure on-site workstations, which helped NARA meet its census release date.

The agency then leveraged this workflow to expand remote access to digitization workstations, enabling a hybrid work model with limited on-site staff scanning materials that could be pushed to the remote staff to process the images and prepare them for online availability.

As NARA pivoted to address challenges posed by the pandemic, the agency relied on innovative technologies to support the newly remote work environment. The agency is looking to accelerate the use of technologies like machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to support its processes and increase accessibility to records.

“We are working with peer institutions and academia to think through and mitigate known issues such as bias in AI,” Pamela Wright, NARA’s Chief Innovation Officer, said.

NARA’s top digitization priority in 2022 is to resume full-scale production scanning.

“There is a greater expectation—especially after the last two years—of archival materials being available online. The shift was already happening, and the restrictions introduced by COVID-19 have only accelerated it,” Henderson said.

Henderson said the agency will also focus on digitizing records related to historically underserved and underrepresented communities. As part of this effort, NARA’s Reparative Description and Digitization Working Group is updating the agency’s description and digitization policies and processes to be more inclusive, reforming outdated or harmful language used in archival description and developing more accurate, inclusive and community-centered language.

“We recently published Guiding Principles for Reparative Description,” Wright said, “and we are just getting started.”

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