Digital archives: Here’s the problem – how would YOU address it?

Report back from the Recordkeeping Roundtable workshop at #ARANZASA in Christchurch, NZ

By Anne Picot

A gathering of over 50 records and archives practitioners tossed ideas around for 4 hours wrestling with the difficulties of what, when and how of establishing a digital archives. The occasion was a workshop put together by the Recordkeeping Roundtable duo, @CassPF and @BarbaraREED, as part of the ASA/ARANZ 2014 conference, to get our profession thinking about what is really involved in a digital archives. As a stray tweeter in the “audience”, the question which kept running through my mind as the experts presented their views was “if a digital archives is the answer, what was the question?”

The prompt for the discussion was a case study presented by Natalie Dewson, Senior Electronic Archives Advisor for the Manawatu-Wanganui (NZ) local government shared services authority for 8 councils. After doing a digital recordkeeping systems stocktake at some of these councils, and identifying a number of digital series which are needed to be kept long term, Natalie set herself the task of making the case for a digital archives. Archives Central (the MWLASS Ltd archives facility) found that State Records NSW’s system migration model suited their needs, and at 300-400k was relatively costly but potentially achievable. However they are lacking a strong business reason to build a business case, so the project has been stopped. Another reason is that a dedicated archive for born-digital archives is an exercise in cost avoidance in the medium to long term: insurance is a hard sell. This was the problem presented for the workshop to “solve”.

5 experts responded with quite different viewpoints to the problem, and then the workshoppers attacked the case for themselves, using the experience, insights, and tips of the experts as jumping off points.

Here are things which the experts said which I thought were striking. Julia Mant (Archives and Records Manager at the Aus National Institute of Dramatic Art – NIDA) challenged the notion of a separate digital “box” for putting the archives in. She argued that the “archives” is/should be a system which embraces policy, processes, actual systems, driven by the focus on accessibility and providing a sustainable means of helping people search for and find what they wanted. There is never one perfect system with answers for the wide variety of materials and systems she has to deal with, no NIDA recordkeeping culture and no priority for a conventional archives for any media. Whatever is proposed has to be integrated with current business systems for selection, as post-custodial sorting/storing is impractical.

Ross Spencer (Digital Preservation Analyst with Archives New Zealand) was appalled by the problems recounted with vendors of systems locking in their “solutions”.   He advocated open source systems, collaboration, getting the right people in the room, both those with organizational clout who could see the problems/risks and the people with skills and knowledge to develop solutions. Tactically he said “rephrase the issues in terms of risk” and look for a series of small projects, each of which can bring in more people to build on the last project’s success and thus expand the base of knowledge and competence by personal interaction. That base of knowledge can become a team of in-house cheer leaders which another expert identified as a necessity to advocate for an eco-system approach.

It was Jessica Moran (Assistant Digital Archivist, Alexander Turnbull Library NLNZ) who emphasized finding the cheerleaders, the people who want you to succeed, starting small and slow and not over-estimating what you can do, and finding a project which can be an easy win. More sage advice in “don’t get stuck on perfection” and “create a road map”, where you are and where you want to get to, pointing out the gaps on the way. To me the gaps then become targets for attention but the question is still, what is the question, what is the aim. Jessica firmly identified accessibility, which fits with Julia’s emphasis.

Richard Lehane as A/g Project Manager for the NSW State Records’ Digital Archives Project was able to say, “we’ve done it, we have set up a digital archives, in the context of a state archival institution with (for once) significant money to undertake the 3-year project. His account of the project identified that the issue wasn’t files, formats or objects, it was systems and context, and the process was not transfer but migration. The latter makes it easier as there is industry experience to draw on, whereas archival experience of taking digital anything into custody is much more limited. While this puts the operation into the more familiar context of project planning, Richard’s observations about putting such a project into a risk assessment and treatment framework struck me as spot-on, as migration is recognized as still the biggest risk. He also identified as part of wrapping up the migration project, after all action was completed, the test of a successful migration was whether the agency could then dispose of those records. What wasn’t asked was the question, what access to those records migrated, with their system and contextual metadata intact, was possible for the agency and eventually the public.

The last expert is from left of field, someone who is experimenting with making digital stuff available, usable, and helping others both use what he provides access to, and to do similar things themselves – Luke Bacon the editor of Detention Logs, ( and web designer. He has developed principles, a glossary and a “reporting recipe” all to encourage people to use the resources he has made accessible and pursue data accessibility for themselves. His advice for digital archives projects was similarly practical – find the material people actually want, choose material in good condition (pilot projects particularly should not be salvage operations) and select a pilot which doesn’t have to cost lots of money. Like the other speakers, Luke emphasizes using projects which are small to build relationships with people, and for his preference, allow scope for experimentation.

After the experts, the workshoppers in small groups began their own exercise, what would they do to “solve” the Manawatu-Wanganui Local Authority Shared Services digital archives “problem”. The proposal was that they should draw out principles and then move to actual planning of actions for now, the medium and the long term.

Of course workshops are fruitful sites for flipping up all sorts of ideas and thought bubbles, if not for developing strategic plans, and we did. The principles were reasonably consistent with what we had heard, like

  • the digital record is managed, preserved, and is accessible for as long as needed
  • accessibility is the key
  • work out what it is you are trying to do – preservation, accessibility, risk management, or compliance
  • start small and build
  • build enthusiasm and win a team of cheerleaders
  • collaborate, you don’t have to solve every problem yourself
  • be flexible, The Plan is not written in stone.

When it came to actions, the Now actions were focused on building the recordkeeping context, support, capabilities and documentation as a basis for the matrix for identifying priorities, building relationships and building from what other people have done already, inside and out of the organisation, with investigation and planning following that. While one strong point, “ask why all the time, don’t assume you need a thing” was highlighted, the missing question is still “Is the digital archives the answer?” Are there other ways to do whatever it is that needs to be done.

Many of the ideas both Now, and in the Medium- and Longterm, are standard project development, management, completion, review and propagate actions, which is to say they are perfectly sound but not specific to either recordkeeping or to the matters of digital records presentation and access. The exceptions are “develop a preservation strategy for the medium and long term” and “amalgamate (or integrate) recordkeeping and business processes to adopt as enterprise practice”.

The limits to the discussion were set by the local government case-study so people were thinking in terms of responding to this particular problem, but there was/is still space for thinking outside the digital archival box. Can dynamic data be locked up in an “archive”? Alternatively, is retention of date-stamped data sets required? Is the meaning of “archive” here actually preservation? Is maintenance in the native system a better fit to requirements so the preservation strategy is migration? Can distinctions between core records with long retention requirements and other transactional records with shorter retentions be usefully made to limit ongoing maintenance to a smaller volume? Is it possible to extract the “records”, or those data fields identified as records, from the system of creation so they remain meaningful? Who are the users, are they all internal or is there a public or other external access requirement? If daily access is the key requirement, as for a GIS, then where and how is that access delivered? Will a discrete digital archives answer the access requirements better than leaving the records in situ and establishing a maintenance control regime? Is the risk assessment such that removing the long term records from the native application is a necessary preservation response, meaning preservation is the over-riding consideration.

As we worked through the issues, no matter what the place or the key requirement for managing digital records over the long term identified, the strategy involved migration. The other essential strategy is managing the contextual information, whether by specific means for each system or through an “Uber” system to enable searching for all sorts of users. So my final question is this: is an actually existing, digital archives really a regime for enabling access to records for the foreseeable future?


About Cassie Findlay

Digital recordkeeping, archives and privacy professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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1 Response to Digital archives: Here’s the problem – how would YOU address it?

  1. inthemailbox says:

    Reblogged this on In the mailbox and commented:
    Fascinating summary of one of the workshops at ARANZASA. I was unable to attend, so thanks to Anne for this comprehensive report.

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