Our business strategy, Archives Inspire, identifies ‘digital’ as our biggest strategic challenge. It is a challenge we share with archives worldwide.
Archives are the homes for our collective memory
They enable us to understand the past and make sense of the present, while offering guidance for the future. Our ability to preserve and make available digital records will decide what evidence people in the future will have of today.
Until relatively recently, records were always tangible. Today’s digital records comprise both informative content and intangible data and code. The emergence and use of digital technologies has profoundly shaped what new types of records are created, captured, shared and made available.
Archives need to develop extraordinary capabilities to ensure that digital records can be kept and used. Our digital strategy sets out our ambitious plans for the next three years to meet this critical challenge.
We plan to
- create the ‘disruptive’ digital archive
- extend our reach and engage new audiences using the web
- transform how our physical archive is accessed and used
- develop our digital capability, skills and culture
- forge partnerships with other archives progressing digital transformation
Our digital work is driven by our strategic ambitions – read about them in Archives for Everyone 2019–23.
Find out more of the details of our digital challenges and goals, or read our complete Digital Strategy 2017-19.
Archives worldwide are grappling with five key challenges inherent in working with digital records:
1. Records move from the physical to the virtual
Digital records are not in a form we can either preserve or produce to a user without using a computer.
2. Digital preservation is difficult
There is no long-term solution to the challenge of digital preservation. It requires institutional commitment to engineering effort over generations of technological change.
3. Expectations are high
Users expect digital products to be simple and intuitive, and to deliver results immediately.
4. Change is continual from here onwards
Each new technology brings a fresh challenge for the digital archive.
5. Digital skills are at a premium
Archives are finding it increasingly difficult to compete in the labour market to recruit people with the digital skills they need.
Where we are
We provide a significant range of digital services. Our website offers rich information about our collections and provides help for users. It also contains supporting resources, such as materials for teachers.
Discovery, our catalogue, enables people to search descriptions of records held in our collection and by other archives.
The UK Government Web Archive is a comprehensive record of government on the web.
legislation.gov.uk provides access to the law.
Our digital archive
We are one of the few fully functioning digital archives in the world. Our digital repository is capable of safely, securely and actively preserving enormous quantities of data.
Through commercial partnerships and our own efforts we have digitised a significant portion of our holdings.
We also own and maintain the best register of file format signatures in the world, PRONOM. This underpins our digital preservation system and is maintained in collaboration with other archives worldwide. Tools like PRONOM and DROID – a software tool that identifies file formats – are of huge importance to digital archives.
Where do we need to be?
First generation, second generation
We are a ‘first generation’ digital archive, digitally simulating a body of archival practice devised for paper. Search and access are provided through our catalogue, in which records are described using long-established catalogue standards.
Our vision is to become a second generation digital archive that is digital by instinct and design.
The ‘disruptive’ digital archive
The disruptive digital archive fundamentally rethinks archival practice from first principles.
This new breed of archive will preserve all types of digital record created by government, not just a set of the most common formats. It will take an active role in discussions about adopting new systems so digital preservation issues are considered as early as possible.
It will develop new ways for providing context, managing risk and giving assurance that records remain unchanged. It will also enable the use of data analytics, which can derive new value from considering records as collections, rather than individually.
Archives provide value to society by keeping records and by providing access to them. Fundamentally, digital archives provide value the same way.
There are four categories for the value the digital archive offers its users: preserve, contextualise, present, enable use.
Our website is an important communication channel through which we engage the public. It enables researchers of all types to learn about our records, search our catalogue and access our collection, either by visiting us on site or by downloading a digitised image.
Culture and skills
The whole of The National Archives needs to be digital by instinct and design; our culture needs to develop over the longer term. We will develop our digital ethos, create opportunities for people across the organisation to lead digital initiatives and evolve our staff’s understanding of digital archiving.
Research and development are essential to addressing our digital challenges. We will develop our digital research skills, creating an environment that promotes exploration and experimentation.
We will also actively participate in research networks and communities.
Phase 1: Reshape (January 2017 to June 2017)
We will reshape our digital teams, make key appointments and prioritise these aims:
● standardise and streamline the process for transferring digital records
● reinforce our commitment to PRONOM
● manage data storage in the most cost-effective way
● work with other archives to collaboratively develop new archival practices, tools and standards
● further embed our use of agile methodology
● promote working at The National Archives
● strengthen our career offer
Phase 2: Grow (July 2017 to September 2018)
We will grow our digital teams and develop our capability as a digital archive. We will reduce the burden on government departments and improve the support we offer them by developing new methods to help manage appraisal, selection and sensitivity review.
We will improve our services to the public, researchers and the archives sector.
Phase 3: Accelerate (October 2018 to December 2019)
We will develop our capabilities more rapidly with growing digital teams. We will enrich our digital culture and skills, developing our practice as a digital archive: our aims will include rethinking how we describe and contextualise digital records and working with other archives to develop new practices, tools and standards. We will investigate how best to manage uncertainty in data about records and gradate access to open records to manage presentation risks.
We will improve our digital services, developing our website and making catalogue descriptions available as open data.