The work undertaken at the Dorset History Centre (DHC) towards developing a digital strategy and gaining buy-in from senior decision-makers has been multi-faceted, including consultation on digital content, digital preservation and the development of a document that collates the various strands of digital work into a coherent strategy.
Set against a backdrop of decline in physical visits and the increasing expectations of users to find and access relevant material via Google, the desire to advance digital provision was informed by a public and stakeholder consultation. This led to the production of a brief for The Audience Agency to explore what content current users and non-users would like to see online.
Following a series of focus groups, ‘curated content’ emerged as the most cost-effective means of engaging with online audiences. This resulted from the highest proportion of responses stating that more online digital content was desirable – but non-specific in terms of type. The suggested approach was to divide the audience into segments based on their propensity and motivation to engage and tailor the content to ensure the long-term relevance of the archives, for example by using stories that come from the collections to appeal to non-users.
There also seemed to be a clear need for demystification around how to use archives, and an expressed need to make the DHC website easier to navigate. Non-users in particular said that they did not know what was available or how to access it. There was also some evidence to suggest that personal interest/ connection will increase the interest in viewing originals. Therefore, it is important to consider the role of the website in helping to guide the visitor to a decision as to how they access material – online or in person.
DHC are also mobilising academics to encourage other academics and PhD students to use the archive resources. This has been achieved via a series of blogs that highlight how accessing the collections has assisted and enhanced their research.
Overall, the work with The Audience Agency led to the conclusion that ‘taking a curatorial approach to the presentation of digital content will be more likely to engage a non-professional audience and help to ensure the long-term relevance of archives to the general public’.
- Read the report commissioned by Dorset History Centre regarding digital content
Whilst the majority of the workload is currently around the accession of hard copy records, the focus will need to shift towards digital preservation, including how best to ingest and process records, differing levels of security, and discovery and access where relevant. This process has begun and a mechanism for digital preservation, using the Preservica system, has been in place for several years via a collaborative contract with West Sussex County Council and Wiltshire Council, which offers benefits in terms of cost and efficiency.
Funding for Preservica is not safeguarded within the core archive budget, which necessitates ongoing work to demonstrate the value of digital preservation. Adoption records have been digitised and uploaded into Preservica, providing an exemplar of dealing with confidential files that need to be maintained for 100 years. This has been good for advocacy in terms of making digital preservation relevant to a wider group of local authority officers.
- Never start with the assumption that everyone understands digital terminology – always tailor the discussion to the appropriate level of understanding and explain terms clearly
- When money is scarce, make the case about why investment in digital is crucial to decision-makers by highlighting how archival practice can mitigate the risks of corporate memory loss and reputational damage
- Archivists need to adapt and continue to learn so that they have the right skills and knowledge as the demand for digital preservation and digitised content increases.
Top tip: Take a strategic approach and try to ensure that the work fits into the broader approach to digital within your organisation. Also highlight the relevance to other areas of your parent body/stakeholder group where possible.
Plans are underway to merge Dorset’s nine councils into two unitary authorities. The challenge of merging councils has put issues of access to records in perpetuity and the risk of obsolescence higher on the agenda. This presents a real opportunity for the archive service to demonstrate its value, as the importance of organisational memory has been acknowledged and a pan-Dorset strategy to digitise key materials from all authorities has been recognised as a way to provide a digital legacy.
There is an intention to use the ‘know your place’ template as a mechanism for making digitally curated content available in future. By picking the most interesting stories, the archive team will be able to deploy resources in a targeted fashion that will give access to selected content and also signpost users to the wider resources.
As a result of this work, the importance of digital is now more widely understood within Dorset County Council and beyond, and there has subsequently been more resource to invest in designated staff for digital work.
Contact the project lead:
Sam Johnston, County Archivist, Dorset History Centre