Let’s Get Digital! – Sara Brimble

The National Archives hosted an event on Wednesday 16th January 2019 to share projects that had been taking place in the world of archives and digital preservation. The topics ranged from opportunities taken such as Hull’s year as City of Culture in 2017 to the future skills needed for digital preservation and how the National Archives and other institutions are facing these challenges.

The day started with a welcome from Jeff James who introduced the exciting work being done in digital preservation around the country and the work of the archives sector to deliver truth, openness and an enriched digital culture.

We then heard from Heidi Bellamy and Hannah Jones on their work for the Digital Learning Skills project. This project invited repositories who were already developing digital preservation on their digital assets to create a forum for knowledge exchange. This was a success, proved there is a need in the sector for a platform for archives to share their experiences, and will see the creation of an online forum, face-to-face meetings and a support network for these projects. We then heard from three archives that were involved in the project: Sam Johnston, Dorset History Centre, Charlotte Willett, The Baring Archive and Lizzy Baker, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Sam discussed their approach of digital preservation as “just getting on with it”. He noted how knowledge management is essential in digital and that all staff are now involved in upskilling so that they all take part in digital preservation work. His main aim coming out of the Digital Learning Set was to create a living document for their digital strategy – citing Digital Strategy 2015 and Beyond as a great resource. Next Charlotte presented the development of a selection model for digitisation. This was based on a feasibility study she produced based on potential projects and what would be possible with the current resource in budgets and staffing. The final case study was Lizzy, who discussed using the momentum of a museums project – ‘Great Exhibition of the North’. Lizzy demonstrated how to not only collaborate with her internal colleagues but external ones, by inviting other archives to provide material that would fit with the project. All three speakers showed how to take up opportunities, engage new users and develop the core skills of archivists to fit digital preservation.

Digital Strategy 2015 and Beyond, Library and Archives Canada.

Next up was the keynote from John Sheridan who aimed to demystify digital preservation. The essential point John discussed was the need to understand how to assess the risk of digital records. Digital items are extremely fragile and have many layers to consider, not only the item itself but also the software and hardware that are necessary to provide access and preserve function. We were asked to challenge the OAIS model and think about how digital preservation is moving away from this traditional lifecycle approach. John’s conclusion was to challenge ourselves as the profession must adapt to digital disruption and accept that disorder is part of born digital content – “record creators are not creating tidy records.” This a chance to readdress our archival mission and not only survive these changes but also thrive.

The afternoon session saw Simon McKeown talk about the challenges of lining up organisations that do not deposit public records to the National Archives such as the NHS, universities and local authorities. Paper records have a place of deposit (PoD) and now digital transfers must be addressed. Despite the challenges, some organisations who previously did not transfer paper records are now engaging with their digital. The opportunities that rise out of this work could see the combination of digital preservation, linked data and full accessible records for series that were previously spread across the country.

Laura Giles then spoke about taking a proactive approach with the project of Hull City of Culture 2017. By engaging the company, the council and other stakeholders from the start of the project the archive was able to prepare and assess what would be needed for their first ever entirely born digital collection.

The final guest speakers were Heather Forbes and Joanna Terry from Archives First & Archives West Midlands, two collaborative groups of repositories acting as a support network and joint resource pool for digital preservation. Both projects have been addressing the skill gaps of their staff and aiming to produce guidance and case studies for use by archives. These projects achieve success from their dynamic approaches to collaboration. They will soon produce practical guidance, which we will include in this article once they are published.

The National Archives at Kew (image source: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/).

Our final presenter was Jo Pugh and Caroline Catchpole from TNA. Jo lamented how to practically allow a large group to have a hands on taster session with digital preservation but went on to do a live demo of an open source tool and suggest a fantastic article – How to Talk to IT about Digital Preservation by Scott Prater.

The entire day was incredibly engaging and varied in the different approaches to digital preservation being worked on right now. The main points I took away was that action should be taken now, risk assessments are essential in prioritising work and anyone can do digital preservation! We need to use the core skills of archiving and point them at this new challenge and just get on with it, no matter how small the project is. This is a new practice for many and practice does make perfect.

Sara Brimble, Records Manager at The Royal Household and Chair of ARA Section for New Professionals

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