The National Records and Archives Administration has responsibility for the billions of electronic records that federal agencies produce annually, including architectural plans for federal buildings, weapons systems designs, White House e-mails, and memos from every department and agency.

Last week, the agency tapped Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda to build a $308 million system to store and maintain those records.

Lockheed Martin's team includes BearingPoint Inc. of McLean; Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Tex.; Fenestra Technologies Corp. of Germantown; FileTek Inc. of Rockville; History Associates Inc. of Rockville; Image Fortress Corp. of Westford, Mass.; Metier Ltd. of Washington; Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, and Tessella Inc. of Newton, Mass.

Allen Weinstein, archivist of the United States, said the new system will make it possible for future citizens to understand the "history of our times."

The key to the system is to make sure records remain "authentic," which means users can view them in their original format even if the software that created the record is outmoded or no longer available. This is difficult because technology changes so quickly that documents created today may not be accessible in three or five years, officials said. Kenneth Thibodeau, the director of the Electronic Records Archive program at the National Archives, estimated that federal agencies use at least 4,800 different document formats.

Most records are stored on magnetic tapes now and are not easily searchable, Thibodeau said. The agency successfully tested the concept behind the new system -- creating a searchable network of databases -- by putting information on about 100 databases.

Lockheed and members of its team will be aiming at a moving target: The volume of electronic documents has exploded with the increased use of e-mail and the Internet over the last 15 years and continues to grow.

Thibodeau said the Executive Office of the President forwarded more than 30 million e-mail messages to the agency at the end of the Clinton administration in 2000. The agency expects the Bush administration to send more than double that in 2008. It also has been scanning historical paper documents to be loaded into the new system.

Officials selected Lockheed to build the Electronics Record Archive over Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., after the two companies spent a combined $21 million over the past 12 months building prototype systems.

"The ERA system is a significant step toward saving our nation's valuable digital information," said Don Antonucci, president of Lockheed Martin's Transportation and Security Solutions division.

Thibodeau said the public will have access to some records through the new system by 2007.

Jason Miller is assistant managing editor of Government Computer News. Information on this and other government technology issues can be found at

The new system will help keep federal records accessible, archivist Allen Weinstein says.