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.