Helen Dafter

Helen Dafter

Last updated on 8 February 2021

Helen Dafter is the Archivist for The Postal Museum in the UK

The Postal Museum cares for the records of Post Office Limited and Royal Mail Group. These records range from employment records, through records of the Great Train Robbery, to digital records capturing the organisational response to the Covid 19 pandemic. My role focuses on developing the museum’s digital preservation capacity. I’m always interested in new tools to support this, especially if they help me articulate what I already know about our current position on digital preservation and provide evidence of this to the senior management team.

I first learnt about DPC Rapid Assessment Model at a Digital Archives Learning Exchange (DALE) meeting in October 2019 and was attracted by the fact that it not only allowed me to assess our current position, but to then set targets for the areas I wished to progress. It is one thing to know what the current position is but setting out where you want to be and how you plan to get there is even more important.

When I first conducted the RAM in December 2019 it was focussed on the records of Post Office Limited and Royal Mail Group. This provided a useful basis for my workplan for 2020 and enabled me to set SMART objectives. Rather than an objective to ‘progress at against DPC RAM’ I was able to propose a more measurable ‘To achieve level 3-Managed status on the organisational aspects (sections A-F) of the Digital Preservation Coalition Rapid Assessment model, level 3-Managed status on sections H-I of service capabilities, and level 2-basic status on sections G, J-K of service capabilities.’ By using this tool, I was not only able to reflect on my progress in relation to digital preservation but also to discuss this with my line manager and other colleagues using a shared reference point.

In my mid-year review in July it was recognised that the changed working environment resulting from the pandemic meant that some of the objectives were no longer realistic, and the target part of the RAM was updated accordingly. This is where the notes field proved particularly useful, as it allowed me to continue to record my eventual target, while also recognising shorter term practicalities of what would be achievable in 2020. For example, the notes for section H now reads ‘Test workflow for responding to failed integrity checks. Improved storage and backup capacity and planning. Documentation of risk appetite and how this impacts the frequency of integrity checking (explore DiaGRAM). Longer term aim to reach level 4’. This balance of realism and aspiration is important. Often there is so much to do to progress digital preservation, it can feel overwhelming and result in paralysis. By setting shorter term targets while also having a longer term goal helps create a sense of progress and achievement.

One of the key learnings for me in 2020 was that progress against the assessment is not necessarily linear. In November 2020 I revisited the assessment and realised that due to pandemic related financial constraints The Postal Museum was at a lower level in area A (organisational viability) than I had previously assessed us at. For internal purposes I added an additional column to the spreadsheet which indicated whether we had progressed, regressed, or stayed in the same position in relation to the previous assessment. This provided a quick reference point for the Executive Team and evidence of how managerial decisions impacted on the progress of digital preservation activity. When I carried out the reassessment in November, budgets for 2021 had not been finalised and it was unclear what financial commitment there would be. Fortunately, some budget is available this year, and digital preservation is gaining an increased profile in the Executive Team which reassures me that when the assessment is revisited I will be able to increase our rating in this area again.

While reviewing the DPC RAM for Royal Mail and Post Office in November 2020 I also began to reflect on The Postal Museum’s own records. As with any organisation, the museum generates its own records, some of which will also require long term preservation in the archive. Until recently the priority was the records of Royal Mail and Post Office Limited, and those of The Postal Museum received less attention. This was partly due to historical factors - the museum became independent in 2004 and prior to that its records were part of the Royal Mail Archive. In the last couple of years the museum has started to recognise the value of its records and the need to ensure that these are also actively managed. This has been complemented by the museum’s contemporary collecting response to the pandemic. As part of this work a conscious effort has been made to capture internal records, such as Executive Team communications, and newsletters. This led me to consider whether it would be useful to conduct a RAM on The Postal Museum archive. While much of the infrastructure to manage these records are the same, there are differences in the policy and strategic areas. As such it seemed a useful exercise to carry out a separate assessment. The main areas of divergence were in B (Policy and Strategy) and G (Acquisition, Transfer and Ingest) where The Postal Museum assessment was lower than that for Royal Mail and Post Office. This provides evidence of where work is required to bring the management of The Postal Museum archive into line with Royal Mail and Post Office archive.

A further benefit of the RAM has been highlighting the areas I will not be able to progress alone, as they require input from IT, the Executive Team, or archive colleagues. Both assessments have been circulated to members of the Executive Team and are being used to inform workplans for 2021. I can also see potential to use the RAM to assess our digitised materials held in our Image Management System but this is beyond my scope and I don’t have sufficient knowledge of workflows around our digitisation processes to do this myself.

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