updated 8/3/2004 6:12:44 PM ET 2004-08-03T22:12:44

The goal for the National Archives: nothing less than a system that will capture electronic information, “preserve it forever and make it accessible at any time, from any place.”

Two big high-tech firms are competing for the contract to create the system, which is to be up and running in 2011.

Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., and Harris Corporation of Melbourne, Fla., will get one-year design contracts worth about $10 million each. Spin-offs from the winning system, including private sales, could be worth hundreds of millions more.

“Just as eight-track tapes, 80 column punch cards and 5½ inch floppy disks have become obsolete and the information on them inaccessible, so, too, will the information on your zip drives, thumb drives and DVDs in just a few years,” said Reynolds Cahoon, chief information officer of the National Archives and Records Administration.

“Without access to usable electronic records, young Americans serving in Iraq today may not be able to get their veterans benefits or access to their digital health records,” he said.

Both the National Archives and the Library of Congress have special shops that struggle to maintain obsolete equipment for reading records, even the wax cylinders such as Thomas A. Edison first used over a century ago. Since then, the pace of obsolescence has increased and digital records are being lost every day.

John W. Carlin, archivist of the United States, pointed out that military records including the design of weapons and the personnel records of hundreds of thousands of veterans are kept digitally, on systems that could decay. He noted that the government’s Department of Health and Human services is devising a nationwide system of medical records that must be kept electronically so they are available nationwide.

“In this way, the doctor of an elderly patient who is suffering from heart disease will have access to the results of that patient’s first EKG administered 30 years earlier,” he said.

Carlin and Cahoon spoke at a ceremony announcing the award of the design contracts for the agency’s new Electronic Records Archives (ERA). Next to the podium, an agency placard announced: “Two nationally known companies will compete to design a system that will capture electronic information, preserve it forever and make it accessible at any time, from any place.”

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