Lorna Williams

Lorna Williams

Last updated on 12 July 2021

Lorna Williams is Senior Archivist at the Bank of England


The Bank of England is the UK's central bank. Its mission is to deliver monetary and financial stability for the people of the United Kingdom. The Bank has had an archive function for over 50 years and it is now one of the finest business archives in the country.  The Archive holds nearly 100,000 items covering all aspects of the Bank’s history and operations since it was established in 1694. As well as meeting the internal needs of the business, the Archive is open to external researchers. Although the archives are not public records, the Bank opens material after 20 years in line with the policy of the UK National Archives. 

The Archive collection is currently predominantly paper but in order to continue to meet the Bank’s own information needs, the requirements for transparency, and to mitigate reputational and legal risks, the Archive needs to be able to collect, preserve, and make available digital records. The Bank has had an Electronic Document and Records Management System (EDRMS) since 2003 and it is here that the bulk of the Bank’s records are stored including its most important records. For this reason the preservation of the Bank’s EDRMS is our priority.

The challenge

The Bank has always recognised the value of its information. The Archive holds beautifully handwritten paper records that have clearly been well looked after since their creation hundreds of years ago (indeed clerks used to be tested and rejected on their handwriting!). It is therefore in character that the Bank was an early adopter of an EDRMS in 2003 (iManage and Autonomy Records Manager). We in the Archive team are very grateful of this; our digital preservation challenge is not one of chaos but rather records ordered in a functional folder structure. Users are required to save their documents (including emails) into the folders and a metadata template is completed on saving. Each folder is categorised according to the Bank’s Records Management classification scheme with clear retention schedules, including a ‘for archive’ retention. There is also a robust review process, whereby every quarter the Archive team assesses folders that have reached the end of their current life and can tag them ‘for archive’ so that they are not deleted. Therefore despite the Bank not having a digital archive we have been able to safeguard key Bank records.

However, our EDRMS is not a digital preservation system and there are issues we now face:

  • Software generally needs replacing after a decade or two and so the Bank’s EDRMS is reaching its ‘end of life’.

  • The earliest records are now 18 years old and potentially at risk of obsolescence, which the EDRMS does not monitor.

  • Some digital records require opening by 2024, a deadline that is fast approaching. The EDRMS is not accessible to the public.

  • Old records are cluttering a system that is used for daily business. Users can move the folders out of the way potentially affecting historical context.

  • There are upwards of 20 million documents in the EDRMS. The Archive takes between 2-5% of all the records created by the Bank, so we potentially need to take 1 million digital records, possibly in a short timeframe. 

  • The records could be in any of the 80+ formats that the EDRMS accepts, including complex records such as emails with links and attachments, potentially with different digital preservation needs/workflows. 

The preservation of the historically important records held in the EDRMS is a big and pressing challenge for our Archive team. It is a challenge we have been preparing for but no amount of preparation can take the place of hands on experience. We are just in the final stages of procuring a digital archive so much of the work starts now. One decision we have had to make so far is what digital preservation approach to take.

Selecting a preservation approach

As part of the DPC EDRMS Preservation Task Force, we identified four approaches to EDRMS preservation:

  • Transfer records to a digital archive

  • Emulate the system or application that holds the records 

  • Leave in current system and manage ‘in situ’

  • Migrate records to a new record keeping system

The approach the Bank should take for digital preservation was a relatively simple decision. As an Archive team in an institution whose main aim is looking after the economy, not digital preservation, it was important to have a solution that sat more with the Archive than Information Technology (IT). Whatever digital preservation approach we chose needed to be relatively simple, preferably tried and tested, requiring minimal resources and little technical support. 

Options 3 and 4 of preserving ‘in situ’ or migrating to a new EDRMS seemed immediately off the cards. EDRMS are not preservation systems, at least not yet. They do not generally have digital preservation functionality such as fixity checking, monitoring for risk, migration to accessible formats etc; features that we considered essential. It may be that an EDRMS could be developed or integrated with other tools to equal the preservation capabilities of digital preservation systems but we have not seen this in action, so in truth did not consider it. Regardless, we were trying to avoid bespoke development. Nor did we see any examples of a new EDRMS effectively moving into the digital preservation space (although EDRMS suppliers often claimed to). Furthermore, we need our digital records to be publically accessible, which is not a feature of an EDRMS. So preservation within an EDRMS was not right for the Bank.

Option 2, emulation, likewise seemed a riskier and resource intensive option. When we started making the digital preservation business case over six years ago it seemed that emulation was only being adopted by the gaming community. Emulation has clearly gained favour since but we have not seen it in the EDRMS space. Also emulation of a system would rest heavily on the Bank’s IT department, which we were trying to avoid.

This left us with option 1, transferring to a digital archive. A digital archive seemed the right approach as we know such systems have been adopted by many archives, including business archives that are similar to us in set up and remit with similar records and recordkeeping processes. Such a proven and relevant track record appealed to us and suggested less risk. Also attractive was that some digital archives require little configuration and technical input thereafter. Quite simply preservation in a digital archive seemed manageable for our Archive team, whilst not compromising on preservation features.

I suspect EDRMS preservation is going to develop very quickly over the next few years, evidenced in the demand for the DPC EDRMS Preservation Task Force. We have certainly seen many changes in this area in the six years that we have been trying to get our investment. It might be that the other digital preservation approaches develop and become more widely adopted so become more feasible for organisations like the Bank. Or perhaps there will be another option altogether? The gap between EDRMS and digital archive might disappear, each one taking on the features of the other? At the Bank we are looking at integrating our EDRMS and the digital archive to make the transfer between the two systems as seamless as possible. Others have already done this. An all-encompassing system therefore does not seem too far-fetched, potentially saving Archive teams’ much needed time and resources. However the emergence of Microsoft 365, Google Drive and other such document management systems (if they can be called this) throw uncertainty on digital preservation approaches, rejecting as they do traditional records management processes. How does one appraise and preserve information that is more chaotically spread? Or formats that only work within the system e.g. Google sheets? What is clear is that whatever the future holds, we cannot keep waiting for new developments to choose a digital preservation approach and so we have chosen ours.

And now to the task itself, digital preservation here we come! 


Watch this space for an online resource from the EDRMS Preservation Task Force in the next few weeks...


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