Gloucestershire Archives

Gloucestershire Archives undertakes digital preservation with software called SCAT, a digital packager which creates Archival Information Packages suitable for long-term preservation. Not all organisations have the budget for expensive bespoke solutions so Gloucestershire Archives currently utilises freely available open source software to process its digital materials.

Heather Forbes, County Archivist of Gloucestershire, describes her organisation’s path to digital preservation.

What’s your role in your organisation?

I am the County Archivist and have been heading the Gloucestershire Archives service since 2005. Gloucestershire Archives is part of the Corporate Resources Directorate at the centre of Gloucestershire County Council. Working with information management colleagues, Gloucestershire Archives work to keep information safe, accurate and accessible throughout its life cycle as it is the lifeblood of the organisation and is vital to the effective and efficient running of its services. The archives provide the county’s corporate and community memory.

What kinds of records do you keep?

We keep a vast range of records such as local government records relating to Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire, records of district and parish councils, and records of the community of Gloucestershire, including businesses and families.

How many people are in your team?

I lead a team of over 20 staff, who are a mix of part-time and full-time employees. All professional archivists and trainees are involved to some extent in digital preservation.

Describe your path to digital preservation

Digital preservation has been on our agenda for over 10 years now. It took off when Dr Viv Cothey, a colleague of mine, put together a set of software tools called SCAT (SCAT is Curation And Trust) – a digital packager which creates Archival Information  Packages (AIP). Through that system, records that are created electronically are packaged in a format that is suitable for long-term preservation. SCAT is based on a variety of international standards.

The reason we use SCAT is because it meets our requirements without needing to raise additional funds to purchase and maintain a commercial e-preservation system.  We can process born-digital materials with minimal costs whilst also learning about the on-going and underlying requirements of e-preservation.

We have made it freely available on our website for people to use if they want, but it doesn’t have the same support mechanism that other packages do. We support the system internally and learn as we go.

We have been exploring other options by working with the suppliers of Preservica and Archivematica. This has helped us understand their processes whilst also drawing up a specification of what we think local authority archivists require the ideal e-preservation system to deliver. Tackling encryption and guaranteeing fixity are two examples. In other words, archivists need a guarantee that the 0s and 1s making up the digital archives remain the same when entering and leaving a digital preservation system.

With our home-made system we have been doing digital preservation for over 10 years, getting to understand the issues and the requirements. Consequently, we are trying to influence what’s available on the market. We are aware that our tools are only a temporary solution that will need the kind of online support that other systems provide. We will continue exploring options and move on when we find, or can commission, something suitable.

What have been the barriers to digital archiving?

Our major hurdle has been getting the records from our own councils before we ingest them into our e-preservation system. Born-digital material is much more forthcoming from community groups across Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire.

A lot of the records we want to collect for the corporate archive are held in line-of- business applications owned by our environment, education, social care and democratic services colleagues.  This information is not always held in a format suitable for long-term preservation.

Through our ‘Archives First’ collaborative project, we’ve been working with 10 other local authorities to address that specific challenge.  This has primarily involved running experiments to try and extract meaningful records to import into e-preservation systems. Examples have included Liquid Logic, used for social care records (not straight forward), and, used by most local authorities to create minutes and document key decisions (more successful).

Other issues include working within local government IT frameworks. IT colleagues tend to prefer off-the-shelf software, and are not keen to deploy open-source software. Similarly, requests for growing on-site storage run counter to the general move to cloud storage, where there are additional security and data protection issues to take into account.

How do you engage people with your digital archives?

Less than 5% of what we look after is actually accessed on a regular basis. As a result, we make documents available when someone needs them. When someone puts in a request for digital records, we make them available in our research room. We are aware this is not a perfect solution, but it is a workable interim measure. We believe it is important for people to access the records but if the document is digital and someone doesn’t want to look at it now, there is no point publishing it as it will be in a different format in 50 years’ time.

We use various platforms to keep our audience updated:

  • online catalogue entries – the catalogue is updated every night
  • Twitter and Facebook accounts – information is published on both platforms daily
  • quarterly newsletters
  • workshops for the public
  • workshops for archivists
  • presentations at events

What tips do you have for other organisations on their digital archive journeys?

Collaborate with line-of-business software suppliers and owners

To overcome the issue of ‘getting the stuff’ from local government record systems, we’ve been running experiments to export sample records as described above. However, we have also consulted with key providers to check how their line-of-business systems might need to be adapted to ensure exports meet long-term digital preservation requirements.

We are also talking to information asset owners, such as our council colleagues who own the social care and democratic services systems. The aim here is to draw up specifications that will meet archival and long-term preservation requirements as well as the immediate business case, particularly when the information asset owners  commission replacement systems.

Collaborate with other archives services

We have collaborated with ‘Archives First’ (made up of 11 local authorities in the South West and South East) and The National Archives to undertake digital preservation research, producing two reports and running a workshop building on the results.

Collaborate with your colleagues

Getting senior management buy-in is essential but not always easy to achieve as e-preservation never appears to be an immediate priority.  We’ve been working closely with our IT and information management colleagues so they can help us sell the general concepts and principles.

Having an IT colleague as a member of our latest e-preservation research project team was invaluable. It helped them get a better understanding of digital preservation and its importance to the council, whilst we benefited from their technical expertise and contacts. We have also found procurement colleagues helpful allies in this journey so that together we can draw up specifications of what is required when information asset owners are commissioning new systems.

Invest in staff training

Upskilling our staff has been our primary means of progressing digital preservation.  By offering substantial hands-on training using SCAT we ensure staff have the skills and knowledge necessary to process digital records. Several of our trainees have gone on to lead digital preservation at their next workplaces.

Have a go and take it one step at a time

Dip your toe into the water and have a go at digital preservation. It is much easier to take it one step at a time. For example, archivists in the local authority sector can start by bringing in records from community groups, such as parish councils, as they have smaller collections of records which are easier to deal with.