About the project
Archives First is a consortium of eleven local authority record keeping services across the south of England. Digital preservation was identified as the key development area for all services where a collaborative approach would be particularly beneficial.
Activity has been undertaken by the consortium in two phases:
Phase 1 analysed the information flow from creation to user access in the paper and digital world, focusing on key classes of records. At the outset, a survey was circulated to all consortium members to establish the progress being made with e-preservation and the volume of different record types being accessioned. Follow-up phone calls and workshops helped clarify the baseline level of knowledge among archivists and highlighted a lack of digital local government records being ingested.
One of the recommendations was that:
an urgent paradigm shift is needed that focuses local authority archivists’ attention on the long-term preservation of information in digital format rather than on their traditional role relating to the permanent retention of information
Phase 2 is focusing on two strands:
- extracting and preserving adoption records from children’s records systems (e.g. Mosaic and Liquid Logic) and minutes from modern.gov.uk local government systems. This involves working jointly with information asset owners and system suppliers to explore issues around export.
- specifying what outputs are required for the digital information lifecycle from creation to storage, including discovery and dissemination.
Heather Forbes, Head of Archives at Gloucestershire County Council, summarises the approach as taking a detailed ‘look beneath the bonnet’ at what the market currently supplies in relation to digital preservation and considering how this matches up to the needs of local government archive services. A systems analyst has also been supporting the work.
A further opportunity has arisen from making a connection with University College London, who are working with Care Leavers Association to develop a better understanding of the information rights for access to social care records and this research will inform government policy. As the Archives First project is working with those creating childcare records there is a strong synergy between the approaches.
- Phase 1 research confirmed that preservation of digital records was an under-developed area for several record offices. In response, Phase 2 has been shaped to help identify key lines of questioning around the specifications for an e-preservation solution.
- Phase 1 also highlighted that the requirements of the local authority archive sector have not yet been addressed. The initial Archives First report identified that information is locked up in ‘line of business’ local government applications, often without an exit strategy.
- Archives First is playing the long game, so thinking of service users who may not yet be born. There was an evident need to engage with information asset owners and technologists to influence system procurement and ensure that born digital records reach the archives. The Phase 2 report will set out a range of actions to overcome the challenges identified.
- A key benefit of working collaboratively was the ability to pool the existing knowledge and expertise among the consortium members and to share the costs.
- The recommendations arising from the work have carried more weight, as the findings were collated across the authorities.
Top tip: Build on the work already done by others and collaborate. Archivists cannot do the work in isolation, so identify key people, such as IT colleagues, information asset owners, information managers, and get high-level buy-in at the outset to ensure the success of your project.
The project hopes to find solutions to the various components of the challenge from packaging and storage through to discovery and presentation. In-house fixity management testing is also in progress (proof of concept).
At the outset of the project, no born-digital council minutes from modern.gov had been ingested by any of the eleven archives services. The end goal is to ensure they are all available in perpetuity so future users can research local government decision making across the whole set of paper and digital records.
The group are planning to draw up an outline quality specification that clearly articulates what is needed for archival purposes and as a result will identify the options available for local authorities should there be an opportunity to procure an e-preservation solution.
The aim is also to influence those creating local government databases via a guidance document so material is created in a way suitable for export into preservation systems.
Alongside guidance, confidence building is also important for the future. The ambition is to position archivists in such a way that they can inform and influence the procurement of local government systems containing the archives of the future.
Digital preservation, with its inherent technical difficulties and issue of capacity in many services, has led to a tendency to defer. However, Archives First realised that unless archivists took a leadership role, born-digital records would become a real problem for information asset owners and archives risked losing access to vital materials.
A key achievement has been guidance around what is required from solutions to meet the 100-year use obligation. A full report on phase 2 with recommendations will be published in April 2019.
Once there is a shared understanding and a clear specification about what is required, this will lead to informed decision-making and cost-effective approaches to e-preservation.
Contact the project leads:
Heather Forbes, Head of Archives at Gloucestershire County Council
Claire Collins, Digital Archivist at Gloucestershire County Council