The position of the manuscripts collection within NLA is in many ways analogous to the current position vis-a-vis digital arcives in UK local archive services:
The department has a collecting remit with private donors and organisations of national significance to Australia. This includes literary figures, people involved in the performing arts and some politicians.
In the past, the department has tried to discourage the deposit of digital material, although if digital media have been accessioned the department has been quite disciplined in completing special media sheets which record the content of the carrier and its format. Information about the media received has also been included in the department’s electronic catalogue, so can be easily extracted.
In seeking to address digital preservation issues within the department, a recent project has extracted all digital media from collections. Now that the digital carriers are all in one place, a programme will begin to transfer the records they contain onto server storage using the Promotheus Digital Preservation Workbench devised by the NLA’s digital preservation section.
This is probably a familiar picture to many local archive services in the UK, and it helped to reinforce the approach we’ve been taking at WYAS to survey digital media within our current collections – although some of our own past documentation is poor and consequently we face a much greater task in determining what these media contain. This just goes to show how relatively simple documentation procedures at the point of accessioning can make a major difference when it comes to digital preservation.
The NLA manuscripts department also faces several challenges as the result of being a small department in a larger institution whose primary mission focus is different to that of a collecting archives. Authenticity, for instance, is much more important in the archival context than in the library environment, where there will usually be more than one copy of any given digital object. The department also identifies a need to ‘train staff to train donors’ – for example, giving advice on simple records management and filing best practice, how to print out a file directory listing the files as they are handed over to the archives. There are challenges too regarding appraisal and access – for instance, staff need to be aware of the media formats they may be offered and whether the organisation is able to handle them, in order to decide whether it is worthwhile taking them in. The NLA’s Mediapedia is one tool being developed to address this issue, a kind of super-enhanced version of the media recognition guide one of my colleagues at WYAS has been working on.
Whilst I think my hosts were worried that relatively little work has yet taken place with regards to digital preservation issues in the manuscripts collection at NLA, I found my visit especially helpful in legitimising the small steps we’ve been taking recently at WYAS – and its the kind of approach that any local archive service would be able to adopt.
- Implement good procedures for capturing as much information about digital deposits as they arrive. At WYAS, we have developed a Digital Archives Deposit form, and comprehensive guidelines to accompany it, although we find it often still requires explanation from an archivist for people to understand the need for it (see 2 below) and to fill it in correctly. The DARP1 report includes an example deposit form, which several other archive services have already adapted.
- Work with depositors to raise awareness of digital preservation issues, and suggest simple steps they can implement to help ensure the long-term preservation of their digital records. WYAS is developing a Digital Archives Collections Guide; we have also toured a Digital Archives exhibition to local family history fairs and I’ve given a presentation about Digital Archives for Family Historians, focusing on preservation of digital images and choosing a family tree software package with longevity in mind. Another of our members of staff is particularly interested in personal digital archives, and is keeping a close eye on the outcomes of the Digital Lives research project at the British Library.
- Train staff in basic digital preservation issues, and provide basic resources to help them identify digital archives and make sensible appraisal decisions. WYAS is developing a media recognition guide and simple procedures for digital ingest (eg checking the contents of media against a file listing provided by the depositor). A well documented digital collection is much more easily handled.
- Survey your current collections to find out how much digital material you already hold, as a starting point for a preservation action plan.