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.


  1. Might I put a good word in for our site in North Carolina?

  2. Thank you for the first comment I ever had on this blog! This list wasn't supposed to be definitive so its great to be directed to other sites. I really like your 'I'm new to Digital Preservation' section.