What can local archive services learn from a national archives? Rather than go through the National Archives of Australia‘s Digital Archives workflow in detail, as I did for PROV (in any case it is well documented here), I thought I’d pick out some specific details which could be useful for those of us working within the local authority sector in the UK:
As with all the Australian digital archives projects, the NAA’s workflow is rooted in the idea of the records continuum and working closely with depositors and potential depositors on recordkeeping standards within government is a vital part of the NAA’s approach to digital preservation. Those UK archivists who heard Natalie Ceeney speak at the recent Society of Archivists’ conference will be aware of the recent critical auditors report into recordkeeping in the Australian public sector, which has caused the NAA to re-examine the way they engage with recordkeepers and senior managers within government. Survey responses are demonstrating that whereas the NAA website is consistently referencced by records managers within Australian government agencies, the message isn’t getting through as well to senior management. NAA reflect that there is a need to change the perspective of their message from the archival to current business needs, and to begin to speak a new language which resonates with managers. Some of the questions in the current survey of digital preservation within local government ask about the relationship between archive services and records managers within local authorities – but we need to look too at the strategic positioning of archive services and ways in which we can effectively sell our skills to business units within local government and promote effective collaboration in recordkeeping. NAA suggest the archive profession needs to become more outcomes focused and accept that imperfections are inevitable.
The staff at NAA warn that it is much harder to motivate depositors to transfer records in the digital world, where lack of physical storage space is no longer a trigger for deposit. NAA are encouraging Australian agencies to transfer records as soon as they fall out of business use, aiming to receive the records before the media they are held on becomes obsolete. TNA’s Digital Continuity project has a similar aim.
Many of the digital records NAA have handled to date have come from defunct Agencies and one-off Royal Commissions, which are a particular problem since the Digital Archives staff are required to do extra work identifying formats and record series, with no-one available to ask from the creating body. With the current round of local government re-organisation in the UK in full swing, this must be a concern for local authority archivists in the affected areas.
As with the digital archives at PROV, the NAA programme and success is built on a mixture of technical and archival skillls. In the local authority sector in the UK, we need more archivists willing to engage with IT staff and developers, and to articulate archival principles which could be beneficially incorporated into current recordkeeping systems, and form the basis of digital preservation programmes within local government.
In the early days of the project, the mantra was that digital archives should logically be treated no differently from paper. This should ease the transition into the digital world for existing staff (when I visited earlier in September, a plan had just been announced to move two staff from the digital preservation team permanently into the work teams which deal with transfer and description of archives, and policy, in the wider organisation), but was also felt to have held back critical thought about how the much richer metadata captured as part of the digital preservation process could be best exploited (eg for access, through the NAA catalogue). Access is an important aspect of digital preservation.
As at PROV, NAA ‘normalise’ records received at the point of ingest/accessioning into a limited number of open source preservation formats. They argue that the cost of conversion now is likely to be less than the cost of conversion in the future, and the risk is reduced since the records are still currently readable in their native format. This policy also reduces the number of formats which NAA must commit to preserving, plus the use of open source formats ensures that a wide range of viewers should always be available. This is a very different approach to that of our own National Archives, whose policy is to wait until the formats are about to become obsolete before migrating to a new format.
The good news for any local authority archivists who might prefer the Australiasian normalisation approach is that NAA also releases its processing tools as open source software, meaning that anyone in the community can try it out. At WYAS, we have already conducted some experiments with Xena, the normalisation software, which is easy enough to install and start using. Also available is the Digital Preservation Recorder software, which helps manage the preservation workflow. Of course, another advantage to using open source is that there is no purchase price!
I was also struck by how scaleable the NAA Digital Archives would be into the type of context with which I am familiar. Although the digital storage arrays and environmental controls in place at NAA might be beyond our current means at WYAS, we could still replicate much of the basic system architecture using simpler equipment (eg a single PC for quarantine before ingest, instead of a complete network). It was also pointed out to me that storage capacity in the digital world is essentially a non-problem, since equipment only lasts around three years anyway and continually gets cheaper for ever greater capacity. It is possible, therefore, to begin with the smallest incremental unit, and work upwards.
Generally, the principle at NAA was one I completely ascribe to – that no amount of theorising about digital preservation will achieve as much as actually giving it a go, however simple the initial efforts may prove to be in the long run.