The Postal Museum (formerly the British Postal Museum & Archive) is run by the Postal Heritage Trust, and houses records from the Royal Mail and Post Office Limited. The organisation is currently transitioning to digital preservation, user copying software and items on removable media and putting it onto secure access restricted servers. In the longer term, the organisation is exploring cloud storage and optical disk archive storage, and is working with partners and industry groups to consider how to deal with file formats, migration, access and discovery.
Helen Dafter, Archivist at The Postal Museum, describes her organisation’s path to digital preservation.
What is your role in your organisation?
I am the Archivist for The Postal Museum. We have been an independent charitable trust since 2004, and I have worked here for over 15 years. Even when I first started, digital was becoming a factor to consider. We only actually opened as a museum three years ago, and at first the focus was on funding and set-up, but digital archiving has been in my work plan for a long time, and has really picked up now that the museum is established.
What kinds of records do you keep?
Everything the Post Office produces, and everything the Royal Mail produced prior to being privatised in 2013, is covered under the Public Records Act. We have business and employment records, as well as publicity material, trade union material, minutes from meetings and correspondence. We also have some unusual items such as a first edition copy of Ulysses, which was intercepted in the post as an obscene publication and telegrams relating to the sinking of the Titanic.
How many people are in your team?
We have seven members of staff on our team – five archivists and two reading room staff – each with our own areas of responsibility. Digital preservation is my area. I am trying to share it out a little more as it is important that it is embedded into the system and that people understand the importance of it. Also, if I were to move on, it is important that other people can pick it up and continue the work.
Describe your path to digital preservation
Most of what we have at the moment is material from the late 1980s to 2010 which I found in the repository where we keep records on floppy disk, CDs and USBs. I have gone through this material using copying software, and put it onto our secure access restricted drive on the server. Having everything together makes integrity checking and format monitoring easier. A lot of removable media is becoming obsolete so we can’t just leave it there.
We also record things we receive via email such as publicity material, which we print to PDF and save in the same place on the server as a more secure format. Material in the body of an email is more at risk if we don’t preserve it, because there is no back-up as with removable media.
The Post Office has a Retention Schedule Project, linked to Data Protection, where they identify personal data and make sure they are not holding it longer than needed. They send it to us and we highlight material that we think should be offered to the archive. Most of it is in digital format and it helps me become aware of what is generated in the business and stops us from missing things. It also helps us to manage workloads – many departments will want to transfer material at the same time due to links to financial years, so if things are not time sensitive we can negotiate to transfer at another time.
We have two servers which are geographically separated, but in the longer term we need to be looking at other options such as cloud storage or optical disk archive storage. However, this is only one part of the solution because we also need to consider file formats, migration, access and discovery.
What have been the barriers to digital archiving?
It has been hard to convince the business that just because we are putting items into the collection it does not mean we are going to make everything widely available, as they have concerns due to commercial confidentiality and security.
However, if they need to refer back, digital archiving means we will have material in an accessible format for them and in the future when we want to make it available. For example, last year the Post Office asked for some material as part of a legal case they were working on. We needed input from our IT team to access this, and also as it was a legal case had to be careful of the authenticity of the material and provide them with their own copies.
Skills have been a problem. I know the theory of digital preservation, and have done a module on it as part of the postgraduate course in Archive Administration, but it was very theoretical and trying to implement it was quite difficult. As I am self-taught and learning on the job, I don’t have the confidence that my approach is right.
Resources are another issue; although we have a team of seven, digital archives are my responsibility, among other things, and the IT staff who support us also have other day to day functions. Additionally, there is a lack of clarity around financial resources as we have three collections and it is not always clear where costs should be borne.
How do you engage people with your digital archives?
Most of our digital records are not easily accessible yet. Some of the earliest ones we have should be accessible to the public by now based on the 20-year rule but they are not catalogued at the moment. The main use is for business and internal matters – particularly legal material.
We don’t want to generate audience demand that we are not able to meet so we are working on getting things in order first. It is something we want to do, as it will help people to recognise that archives are not just paper and artefacts, and that we don’t just work with things that are hundreds of years old. As the academic and research agenda moves forward the resources that underpin that also need to be available – people will want to research more recent history and its impact on society.
What tips do you have for other organisations on their digital archive journeys?
Work with your peer group
I am trying to work with other organisations and archives to improve my knowledge and skills, talking to people and getting advice from other archivists. We are all grappling with the same question and it helps a lot to work together.
Join an organisation
Organisations such as the Digital Preservation Coalition run training events and it can be a chance to meet people, and share experiences. I am also interested in the work that The National Archives is doing as part of their Plugged In, Powered Up digital capacity building strategy, such as the peer mentoring and Novice to Know-How programmes. I also find the Digital Archive Learning Exchange (DALE) events really useful – at a recent one, I met an archivist who works just around the corner and we have been in touch ever since.
Explain the business value of digital preservation to your organisation
We have a very valuable archive, a lot of which is currently on paper, but as we go forward and everything becomes born digital, we won’t be able to capture it unless we act now, which is a financial risk to us and represents a loss of brand value (for example we have a lot of material around the 500th anniversary of the Royal Mail in 2016, but we will need a lot of digital material to underpin the 525th anniversary). People get excited about paper records but motivations for keeping the digital are exactly the same.
Consider Archive Service Accreditation
We are mandated to have this as we are a place of record but, because there are now requirements for digital preservation, it helped me to speak to the people in senior management about the importance of moving forwards.
Be patient and take one step at a time
Establishing a digital archive system does not happen overnight. It can be a struggle, and feel like you are taking one step forward and two steps back. The important thing is to be realistic, and to realise that doing something, no matter how small, is better than doing nothing.
There are things I have considered in the past that have not been successful or that I have abandoned. You are working on shifting sands and you have to be able to shift with them. Continually re-evaluate your position, and adjust your Key Perfomance Indicators (KPIs).