Helen Shalders

Helen Shalders

Last updated on 19 December 2019

Helen Shalders is Digital Archives and Cataloguing Manager at Historic England

The Historic England digital archive, which forms part of the Historic England Archive (HEA), holds 60TB of data, predominately images in TIF format but also, PDFa, shape, wav and mp3 and some more obscure specialist formats.  We ingest around 100 thousand files per year which is around 5TB. What we hold represents a national data set, and the content has usage potential well beyond the heritage sector. We have recently moved our Archive to the cloud, with mixed results and we use Extensis Portfolio as our platform of choice as well as a plethora of spread sheets to manage our holdings. Digital material for which appropriate rights are held is available to view via our website (archive.historicengland.org.uk). We have just commissioned Golant Innovation to work with us on developing a DAM proposal and business model.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that my colleagues and I view much of what we hold as priceless. An aerial photo of a parch mark revealing a Roman villa may have been visible once for only a few months; the photographic record, pre-destruction, of an old building is unique and irreplaceable. Yet digital preservation challenges are poorly understood (even by us) and aligning funding and IT development are challenging. Since taking on the role of Digital Archive Manager nine years ago I have been involved in several projects to develop the digital archive and put it in a better place.

So, how can we convince those who can support us that what we have is worth not just investment now, but worth investment over time? The second part of the question is the rub I think. Digital preservation is a moving target. One of my first successes on taking on this role was to ensure we had an adequate backup regime. Back in 2010, this was a mix of servers, local and remote, tapes and detached hard drives. Since then we’ve used a DAS and remote storage and now we are in the cloud. This last is a problem- we are going backwards in terms of speed of access and it’s expensive. At the time we were using DAS and remote storage we were running DROID and Fixity to have at least some preservation data to work from. Our implementation of a cloud-based system has not been without its issues, and day to day movement of files for work is proving unwieldy, whilst both DROID and Fixity are not currently working. We are learning lessons about building a Digital Archive on the fly and are driven by a complexity of other developments and issues.

It’s hard to remember that we are but a few decades into the world the internet has created. People anticipate information instantly and in the case of an august and learned institution, the expectation is that the information is accurate and reliable. For our material to be valued the solution to our digital archive must include provision of high quality metadata. This might be drawn from the catalogues; it might be from the creator or more likely from both. The technical solution for the digital archive must include this as well as a swift and secure means for dissemination via the web.  Again, this is a moving target. Ten years ago the expectations for hand held devices were much more basic. Now people want to access data on the move, use geo-referencing to do this and also to be able to share what they have found.

We need a proper, end to end preservation and storage solution using a digital archive specific cloud and a full suite of functioning preservation software. With this we can develop a multifaceted means of distribution. We have to promote a better understanding of the challenges around digital archiving and engage in a conversation to promote help people understand that to provide proper care and proper access to our archive that we are worth on-going investment. As technology advances so will the methods of digital preservation.

So what are we doing? We are working towards a holistic digital preservation strategy, planning a digital asset management solution for the wider organisation within which the Digital Archive will be secure. By working together we hope to ensure that all the digital resources will have enhanced storage, preservation and access. By combining the significance of the holdings and the resources required to maintain them will be highly evident. We are also moving our language away from describing ourselves as a Digital Archive and talking about Digital Preservation, many of our colleagues who support us in IT have an understanding of what a digital archive is, but it is certainly not what we mean, language barriers like this have set us back in our plans and implementation. 

At present our digital preservation system is embryonic but we are determined and committed to moving forwards.  Watch this space.

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