"What Are You Working On, Mark Conrad?"

Ever wonder what exciting new projects the many employees at NARA are working on? The “What are You Working On?” blog feature aims to introduce a variety of NARA employees and highlight some of the exciting projects we are working on around the agency. Check for this blog series on Wednesdays!

This week, we introduce Mark Conrad, Archives Specialist in NARA’s Center for Advanced Systems and Technologies (NCAST).

What is your name and title?

My name is Mark Conrad. I am an Archives Specialist working in NARA’s Center for Advanced Systems and Technologies (NCAST).

Where is your job located?

Rocket Center office 1

I work in the Erma Ora Byrd Conference and Learning Center in Rocket Center, WV.  I was the first NARA employee to have Rocket Center as my permanent duty station. I was a pioneer!

What is your job in a nutshell?

U.S. Forest Service - Birds of the Lake Tahoe Basin
U.S. Forest Service – Birds of the Lake Tahoe Basin

I am a red-tailed hawk. That’s what recently-retired NCAST Director, Ken Thibodeau, calls the NCAST Advanced Research Team. We are supposed to fly high and see what technologies are coming over the horizon that may help NARA carry out its mission.

My job is to collaborate with some of the leading computer scientists and engineers around the world to look at issues NARA needs to address – especially in the area of long-term preservation of electronic records. I provide our NCAST Research Partners with information about how archivists carry out their work. Our Research Partners develop prototype technologies that might help NARA carry out its work. My job is to break the prototypes – to see where they fall short. This is how we learn lessons about where the current “edge of the envelope” is for technologies NARA may need for carrying out its mission.

What are you working on right now?

With the assistance of 17 student interns, I am collaborating on a number of projects. For example, many of the students are currently loading large numbers of files into a testbed that is being used by the computer scientists working on the CI-BER project. The purpose of the project is to provide insights into the management of very large data collections. As the number of files and bytes in a collection goes up some of the systems used to manage the collection break down. This project will help us to identify some of the bottlenecks and look for better ways to build systems that don’t break down as the volume picks up.

One student is currently collecting copies of NARA’s Social Media sites. He is doing this so that we can learn more about some of the issues involved with managing and preserving any records created on these sites.

Several of the students are writing small programs (scripts) that are used to convert files from one format to another. These scripts will be loaded into the Polyglot prototype being developed by our Research Partners at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. This work will give us further insights into the issues involved in the conversion of files as older file formats become obsolete. You can try this tool out yourself by clicking the link above.

I am working with folks from the Department of Energy, NIST, Naval Sea Systems Command, Army Research Lab, and other Federal Agencies on ways to share information about current and emerging practices for managing and preserving engineering data for as long as it is needed. Information needed to design, build, and maintain almost anything used to be stored in engineering drawings. Now much of that information is stored in Computer-Aided-Design (CAD) models. Unfortunately the software and hardware necessary to use most of these models will become obsolete long before the ships, planes, buildings, etc  built with that data will be taken out of service.

I am also working with NCAST’s Systems Engineer, Rick Lopez, and our Research Partners at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center to test Pittsburgh’s SLASH2 file system. This system is used to rapidly produce geographically-dispersed copies of electronic data. One of the most important techniques for preserving electronic records is to make multiple copies of them and keep them at different locations. SLASH2 will allow us to test how to do this in an automated fashion for data collections with many files and bytes.

All of these collaborations and more are part of NARA’s participation in the NITRD Program.  You can find out more about the NITRD Program and some of our collaborations by clicking on the Tech Tuesdays Channel on the NARAtions blog.

How long have you been at NARA?  Have you worked at any other NARA location?

I came to work at NARA in August of 1991. I began working as an appraisal and accessioning archivist in NARA’s Center for Electronic Records. Most of my NARA career has been spent moving back and forth between the National Archives Building in Washington, DC and Archives II in College Park, MD – with a side trip to Ireland – before landing here in West Virginia.

What has changed since you started at NARA?

So much has changed. When I came to work at NARA there was no Archives II. I shared a single rotary phone and 4 computers with 7 other people.  A few of us in the Center for Electronic Records had e-mail accounts, but they were hosted at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There was no Internet connectivity throughout NARA. We sent electronic records on 9-track tapes to NIH to have them read or copied.  A few pictures might help:

This is me in December of 1993 shortly before the Center for Electronic Records moved to College Park. At this point I had my own touch tone phone on my desk!

This is me in December of 1993 shortly before the Center for Electronic Records moved to College Park. At this point I had my own touch tone phone on my desk! (Photo by Linda Henry)
(Photo by Linda Henry)

We had luxurious surroundings:

Sprinklers 4

We used warning tape, foam, and Mardi Gras beads to remind us to duck our heads at all times so that we didn’t hit them on the pipes, cement-covered I-beams, and fire-suppression sprinklers throughout our workspace.

This is me sitting in the NCAST lab in Rocket Center in June of 2007. We’ve upgraded lots of the equipment since then.

Mark 5

Do you have a favorite day at NARA, or a favorite discovery or accomplishment?

One of my most memorable days at NARA was the day the Center for Electronic Records moved in to Archives II.  We arrived in the middle of an ice storm. Having come from our quarters in the “attic” of the National Archives Building (see photos above) we were all like kids in a candy store in our brand new cubicles in a state-of-the-art building.

One of my accomplishments that I am most proud of is that I conducted the first appraisals and wrote the first appraisal reports for electronic records from the Executive Office of the President – and got everyone who needed to,  to sign off on them.

What are your passions or interests outside of work?Mark 6

My life outside of work revolves around my family. My wife and I spend most of our waking hours trying to accommodate/adjust to/cope with our daughter’s busy social calendar. All three of us love to travel and we all enjoy taking photographs.

I also have a passing interest in the Green Bay Packers.

What is the last book you read, or the last book you loved?

The last book I read was, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. I am getting ready to re-read, the Under The North Star trilogy by Väinö Linna, translated by Richard Impola. It is an amazing set of novels about the societal changes in Finland from the 1880s to the 1950s.

10 thoughts on “"What Are You Working On, Mark Conrad?"

  1. Great story. I didn’t work at NARA before Archives II so it is interesting to see what the working conditions were like. I also enjoy the human interest side of these stories.

  2. Thanks for the sentimental reminder of our “luxurious surroundings” at the Center for Electronic Records.

  3. Sharon,

    Those were the “good old days”? I suppose looking back 17 years later you do tend to view it with some sentimentality. Glad we are where we are now!


    Not everyone’s working conditions were like the one’s pictured here. Some folks had better conditions and a few might have had worse!

    It just amazes me to see all of the changes that have taken place in less than 20 years.


  4. Thank you so much, Mark! It’s so interesting to hear about the history of the Archives and what folks are doing.

  5. Hi Mark,
    I don’t know if you remember me, but I am Kim Oftedahl’s mother and I am trying to find my fathers Naval ship, the Lexington I, there were at least two, I lost his rolled picture that showed all the men who were serving on it they were in front of the ship docked in California in 1934.Not sure what port.Thnk it was in April or May.
    I accidently say your name! Small world!
    Can you help me find that photo?

  6. Mark,
    This is an all-time great WAYWOW. I love the pictures, especially the one taken by Linda Henry (and thanks for remembering her), and the one where you appear to be the Packer’s offensive coordinator calling plays from Rocket Center!

    Keep up the great work!


  7. I love these “What are you doing?” entries. It’s so interesting to hear about what NARA employees are working on.

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