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Posts Tagged ‘digital recordkeeping’

Finally got round to reading Lord Dacre’s recently released Review of the 30 Year Rule, the legal arrangements under which central government records are transferred and made available to the public in the UK.  This affects West Yorkshire Archive Service (and most other local authority record offices in the England and Wales) as an officially recognised Place of Deposit (or POD) for central government records created locally – from organisations like the National Health Service, the courts service and so forth.

Like Steve Bailey on records management futurewatch, I’m a bit surprised by the quiet reception the recommendations seem to have had in professional archival circles, but perhaps everybody’s just slow at getting round to reading the thing, like me!  Certainly the report’s recommendations, if implemented, will have some very serious implications for PODs in terms of paper-based records, processing capacity and storage space, but that’s a debate for another forum perhaps.

But in terms of local digital records, I was delighted to see the final recommendation (8.25) that:

the appropriate central government authority does more to monitor and prompt continuing work on the preservation of electronic records that are generated by local government.

…and this in a report reviewing a piece of legislation (the Public Records Act, 1958) which strictly doesn’t even apply to local government!  Its great too to see suggestions at last that local government records should be subject to the same system of access as central government ones (7.25). Furthermore, the report’s authors believe that digital recordkeeping in local government

deserves the highest possible priority, including regular consideration by senior decision-makers alongside normal business and financial planning.

In terms of digital preservation at a local level then, bring it on!!

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Lots of interesting work going on at North Carolina State Archives – plenty to read on their electronic records page. One project I’d particularly like to highlight is their work on the preservation of e-mail.

E-mail seems to be one of those types of electronic record about which there’s been lots and lots of discussion about how difficult it is to preserve, but not so much (at least that I knew of) in the way of practical advice of how you might go about attempting to keep it.

As well as the very practical guidelines for users, and suggested retention periods for e-mail, staff in the North Carolina State Archives Government Records Branch have been working on a collaborative project to transform e-mail from its native format into XML for preservation. The catalyst for this project was the deposit of e-mail messages from a former North Carolina governor and his staff. The website for the e-mail project has a full set of documentation, and links to other e-mail preservation initiatives. More recently, North Carolina has been working with the Collaborative Electronic Records Project (CERP) at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Rockefeller Archive Center, and an XML schema for a single e-mail account has now been published.

I have also visited the Smithsonian Institution Archives, who have also developed some automated tools to help with the processing of e-mail archives, which they hope to make available on their website in due course. The CERP Project will be of particular interest to UK local archives, since this work has been achieved with an emphasis on low-cost solutions suitable for small and medium-sized organisations.

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Operating the Digital Archive

As previously posted, the operation of the PROV Digital Archive is well integrated into the wider organisation, with the same team responsible for transfers of both paper and digital records. This team also creates the disposal authorities (more commonly known as ‘retention schedules’ in the UK – is the different terminology significant??!) for all Agencies within the State of Victoria.

Digital records are only accepted into the Archive if they are VERS compliant, and the Agency’s recordkeeping system can produce VEOS according to the standard mandated under the Victorian (as in ‘State of…’) Public Records Act.

This is obviously a strong advantage for PROV, and not a requirement which can easily be translated into the UK local authority archives context. However it is worth noting that despite the relative strength of their archival legislation, PROV staff still commit considerable effort into consulting with Agencies and carrying out pilot transfers. The team at PROV have noticed that it is harder to encourage deposit in a digital world, whereas historically a lack of physical space for keeping records often triggered transfers to the archives. Whereas traditionally the transfer process was client driven, commencing with an Agency request, PROV are now trying to move towards a programmed transfer timetable for both paper and digital records. PROV are trying to sell this to the Agencies as being cheaper and easier than ad hoc clear-outs of records.

There are in any case many similarities in dealing with transfers of records to the archives whatever the format of the records. PROV needs to maintain intellectual control over the records series, and descriptive lists need to be produced. Background information on provenance and access arrangements or restrictions is gathered prior to transfer by PROV staff through site visits or, increasingly, formalised documentation. The Agency staff are responsible for producing a ‘manifest’ listing the records being transferred. PROV provides advice and training on the process of preparing digital records for transfer, and transfer guidelines are published on the PROV website. Digital archives may be transferred on CD, hard drive or copied remotely into the Digital Archive inbox (though few Agencies have yet taken advantage of this method of transfer, preferring to follow the paper paradigm and copy records onto CD much as they would package paper records into boxes).

The system of intellectual control (assigning of unique identifiers etc.) for digital archives follows much the same pattern as for paper records. My feeling is that Australian practice in the use of consignments and the series system makes this simpler to implement than with the UK practice using accession numbers and hierarchical cataloguing, although clearly we in the UK need to take some time, as did PROV with the revision of their Archival Control Model, to consider how to integrate digital archives into key archival processes.

Where do PROV themselves hope to see improvements? Dealing with digital has highlighted an internal need for improved written procedures for dealing with transfers, whether in paper or digital formats. New staff need to be trained to operate the Digital Archives interface (a heavily customised version of Documentum). Improved guidelines are also needed to help Agencies, and in particular Agency IT staff who are most likely not familiar with archival practices and terminology. One of the technical support staff at PROV pointed out that ‘file’ in IT terms has potentially a completely different meaning to the archival ‘file’. Language needs to be translated into terms which Agency staff are familiar.

Once the digital records arrive at PROV, the manifest is loaded into the Digital Archive system and checked against the records actually received. The records are checked to ensure that they are valid VEOs and that they are virus-free. Various errors can be picked up at this stage – duplicate records, extra records received or too few, problems with the digital signature etc. Simple errors can be fixed by PROV staff, but in general it has been found best to request the Agency to resubmit the whole transfer. The records remain in ‘quarantine’ for seven days, before the checking process is re-run. If successful, the transfer can be finalised and the records become viewable through the PROV online catalogue.

The first pilot transfers to the Digital Archive took place in 2005. The largest accession so far has in fact been digital surrogates from PROV’s own digitisation programme, although another major and ongoing project is the archives of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. This has brought its own unique challenges in working with a project organisation in the process of being wound down (for example, password protected records which cannot be processed into VEOs have had to be ignored).

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