Thanks to Alan’s Notes & Thoughts for the heads-up about the publication by MLA East of England of the second report from their Digital Archives Regional Pilot (DARP).
This work follows on from the first DARP report, which was published in 2006 and involved the archive services in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire and the UK Data Archive. The second phase was a smaller project based in my county of birth, Bedfordshire, which surveyed a sample of typical depositors to local authority archive services, such as town and parish councils, schools, Church of England PCCs, businesses and charities. The intention was to gain an understanding of the state of digital record creation and recordkeeping within these organisations, and their level of preparedness for the long term preservation and access to those of their records which would ideally be kept indefinitely as part of the historical archives of the local area.
The findings of the DARP2 survey are interesting, and form an important contribution to efforts to develop digital preservation capability amongst the wider UK local archive network. In general, the organisations surveyed seem to make widespread use of computing technology for the creating and distribution of documents, but prefer to print to paper for recordkeeping purposes.
I did wonder how far these findings derive from the survey being carried out in a relatively small and predominantly rural county. With every schoolchild in Leeds assigned a user account on the privatised Education Leeds Sharepoint system, it is hard to imagine that schools have such a free rein in digital recordkeeping and business continuity as they appear to have in Bedfordshire. We have already had digital deposits in the form of spreadsheets and accounting software from urban churches in West Yorkshire.
Nevertheless, it is comforting (as long as we do not use this as an excuse for inaction) to learn that “most places are not going anywhere near paper-less for the moment. So there’s time to intervene, influence and prepare.” One area in which my experience at WYAS definitely does match the survey’s findings is an unquestioning belief that existing local archive services are equipped to deal with digital preservation. We need to act now if we are to retain this trust in the digital world.
At WYAS we are already working on some of the report’s recommendations, providing support and advice to potential depositors to help them create and curate their own digital records in ways which will aid keeping them accessible. I agree that metadata is crucial to managing the longer-term preservation and accessibility of such records, but question the recommended reliance on a creator-completed form as a means of collecting this information on deposit. Whilst we’ve introduced such a form as an interim measure at WYAS, our experience on the whole is that depositors fail to fill it in properly. The DARP2 survey itself seems to provide further evidence of this problem, revealing an overall picture of “all or nothing in terms of understanding” of digital recordkeeping. Isn’t it unrealistic, given the level of recordkeeping support the DARP2 report concludes is needed, to expect depositors to provide complex technical details of the files they deposit with their local archive service? Surely community development of automated tools for the extraction of technical metadata (the New Zealand Metadata Extractor is one example) offers a more sustainable and cost-effective way forward?