Thursday, 27 October 2011

Ask the archivist

In the last year, as a records manager, I've been increasingly drawn to the work of digital archivists. It's a vibrant global community where projects range from digitizing family photo albums to making priceless cultural treasures available online.

I sometimes look enviously at these projects. They are positive, cultural contributions that enrich and educate our society. Records managers, by necessity, often work in more prosaic areas. The really interesting 'culture' stuff we know we will have to pass to the archivist.

The digital archivist projects often involve a scenario where a collection has been deposited in a perilous electronic state - old electronic formats, no metadata on photographic records etc.
Whereas this is usually the beginning of the story for the archivist I always can't help thinking 'what did the records manager tell the owner of the collection when he created the records?' It has impressed on me the need to apply lessons learnt from archivists to inform how I advise my organisation on how they work today.

For example, I really liked the recent Signal blog post which discussed whether the digital record is an 'artifact' and 'information'. The illustrative examples were a medieval manuscript and a 'Copyright Office card catalog'. Part of the user experience with the medieval record, as well as reading the text, was to see how the manuscript was presented. Therefore the challenge was to create as accurate as possible digital image of the pages. With the copyright cards, it was the information that was paramount. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was scanned onto the cards to allow quick searching. The principle was that each record aims for a high 'information' score. The 'artifact' value, however, varies according to the nature of the record.

It made me think about simple scanning projects often carried out in organisations. There are some oppressive 'legal admissibility' standards out there (0008) which can often intimidate organisations so much they often keep the paper copies and its accompanying storage space (which loses half the intended benefits of the project) or don't undertake any scanning at all. In most cases with these records (invoices, forms, project documentation), the 'information' value is the key - the 'artifact' value is low. These records are often only likely to kept for a finite period anyway, so why jump through hoops to ensure the shadow from the staple is authentic?

When we start to think about some of the more high-risk records (health, social care, educational) then the 'artifact' value rises - we do need to have a feel for the authenticity and integrity of a digital document. It is these records that we need to invest the time. Traditionally these type of records are also kept for much longer, so the long-term preservation of the records needs to be a big part of the discussion at the scoping stage of the project. How many digital archivists get involved this early?

I get on well with our archivists and try and corner them for coffee every now and then to discuss our respective challenges. The good news is that I've collaborated on a little feasibility project bid regarding the long term preservation of electronic records. Luckily, we were successful. As Allabouttherecords is my personal blog, I've set up a separate blog for this project, which you can view here if you are interested.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Keeping records til Domesday...

The preservation of electronic records is one of the major challenges for records managers. The user expectation, intensified by Google, of instant access and retrieval of electronic information makes the old style 'request for file 2 in box C on shelf 3 in bay 16' seem like something from another world, akin to the workplace tobacco and scotch bottles in an episode of Mad Men.

And yet paper is much more resilient. I know that, if the building stays standing, that file 2 in box C will still be accessible in 10 years time. I can't say this with certainty about my blog, my tweets, my word documents, my spreadsheets. I still have the floppy disks I did my thesis on but it would probably require a supplier search of 'JR Hartley Yellow Pages' proportions to find someone who could open the files. And would the format even be readable? Was it Word 95? Or - gulp, Wordperfect? My bound copy of the thesis, however, sits on my shelf impervious to technological change and threatened only by dust or toddlers with crayons.

What happened with the Domesday project is an excellent example why these challenges need to be looked at with electronic records.

The Domesday Book, completed in 1086, was probably the most ambitious 'information audit' - to use the records management terminology - ever undertaken.

For the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book the BBC undertook a nationwide project to undertake a similar exercise. As a 'knights and castles' obsessed schoolboy at the time, I loved the Domesday projects we did at my primary school, knocking on village doors and interviewing residents. The results would be stored on fabulous new computer media. We would occasionally get a chance to glimpse the school's BBC computer but I'm not sure it was ever actually switched on while I was there.

The original 1086 Domesday book sits in National Archive and will be quietly awaiting its 930th anniversary around the time of the Olympics in Rio. Anxieties about the obsolesence of the 1986 files grew, and in the early 2000s a massive project to convert them from their huge laser discs into a readable web based format ensued. In 2011 it was made largely accessible in a web based format. Until the next upgrade or major technical change...

Luckily, digital preservation issues are being debated and discussed across the globe and there are many useful blogs available. I'm a particular fan of Future Proof from Australia, which combines some good technical overviews with some useful posts about training and awareness. There are some excellent discussions on the Unversity of London Digital Archiving Blog. I've just discovered the Library of Congress blog The Signal which has several posts a week from lots of contributors. The National Archives have some good generic guidance around digital continuity and are doing some interesting stuff around archiving Government websites. Practical E-Records is more on the technical side of things and has recently been posting some really interesting stuff on email preservation.

This issue is something as records manager we need to keep working on. Especially important is the need for records managers to be the bridge between the user and the archive. Surely the whole thing needs to connect, not just when archivists find a collection on their doormats? Otherwise we're doomed. Or 'Domed', as the Normans would say.