Over the last few months we have been working to develop a new Digital Strategy for The National Archives. We wanted to share what we’ve been doing with the digital preservation community. In part that’s because we hope it will be interesting and also because we really value others comments, insights and ideas. Working on the strategy has provided a valuable chance to reflect on where we are as a digital archive and to chart our next steps.
Our business strategy, Archives Inspire says that ‘digital’ is our biggest strategic challenge. The National Archives is not alone: archives worldwide are grappling with the issues of preserving digital records. We also need to be relevant to our audiences: public, government, academic researchers and the wider archives sector – to provide value to them at a time of change.
Changing our assumptions
Many of the ideas about archives, what they are, what they do and how they do it, stem from the physical nature of the records. Digital records change all our assumptions around the archive – from selection to preservation and access. To begin with digital archives have leaned heavily on the practice of the physical archive. The leap we’re aiming to make with our Digital Strategy is to move beyond the digital simulation of the physical, to become a ‘disruptive’ digital archive that is digital by design.
A first generation digital archive
We’re starting from a good place. The National Archives is a fully functioning digital archive with a Digital Records Infrastructure capable of safely, securely and actively preserving very large quantities of data with associated descriptive metadata, managed using a flexible approach. We’re also very lucky to have expert and capable people working here. Until now we have been simulating in a digital way archival practices that were designed for physical records. The strategy calls this approach the first generation digital archive, taking the paper records paradigm of selection, preservation and access and applying, as far as possible, the same mindset to digital records.
Becoming a disruptive digital archive
The second generation digital archive, that we aim to become, is digital by instinct and design. It is disruptive of established archival practices. It sees the evidential value of rich mixed media content (things like websites), datasets, computer programs, even neural networks, as records not just information in document formats – and it makes sure all these types of things can be selected and preserved. It understands that digital information has value in aggregate – that it’s not just individually important artefacts that have historical value. It knowingly commits to the relentless engineering effort to preserve digital objects, measures and manages the preservation risks and is transparent in its practices. It develops approaches for dealing with uncertainty and sensitivity. It navigates a path of enabling access to the whole collection whilst also appropriately constraining use, with regard to legal, ethical and public acceptability considerations. It makes the leap to the archive as fluid, conceptually interconnected data.
In our strategy we’ve set out some of the detailed steps we plan to take to become a second generation digital archive. These are ambitious aims and there are many challenges we need to tackle along the way. Whilst we are growing our capability, we’re also too small to do all these things on our own. Collaboration between archives and other memory institutions is essential as we move forward. We’re looking forward to further contributing to the Digital Preservation Coalition (which is a national treasure!), sharing what we’re doing, learning from others, and working together.