Helen Dafter

Helen Dafter

Last updated on 4 November 2020

Helen Dafter is an Archivist (Digital Preservation) at The Postal Museum

Before any archive can start to preserve digital records it first needs to get them into the archive. This is something I have been working on at the Postal Museum this year. It has been an exercise in advocacy and trust building as much as technical skills.

To set the scene, the Postal Museum cares for the archive of Post Office Limited (POL) and Royal Mail. It is an independent charity which has created its own challenges for this work. This blog focusses particularly on my work with POL but I hope that the processes developed will be applicable to Royal Mail in due course.

In 2018 POL developed retention schedules across the business. The Postal Museum commented on these during the project, identifying materials which needed to be offered to the archive. These provided the starting point for my approaches to POL departments to discuss the transfer of records to the archive.

Alongside the retention schedules I also developed an advocacy paper. This helped me shape my approach to contacts, thinking about POL’s business purpose and how digital preservation fitted into this. Drawing on valuable training from DPC on advocacy for digital preservation I structured this paper around the Golden Circle concept.

Armed with the advocacy paper and the retention schedules I planned my approach. I worked through each retention schedule extracting those record types which had an end of period action of ‘offer to the Post Office Limited Archive at the Postal Museum’. I then looked at the retention period for each of these record types to determine the dates of records which were due to be transferred.

Each retention schedule has a named owner who I approached to discuss this material. I prioritised which departments to approach, beginning with Finance, Communications, Marketing, IT, and HR. I also staggered my approaches to manage my workflow. There are approximately 30 retention schedules across the business so I needed to avoid having to coordinate transfer from 30 departments simultaneously for the sake of my sanity.

I was pleasantly surprised by how many departments responded to me quickly. These responses were usually requesting more clarification about what was required and then the more detailed work began of sustaining communications, allaying concerns, and translating our discussions into action.

In most cases the initial contact was followed with a Teams meeting to explore what may be relevant for transfer to the archive. This is one area where the enforced working from home in 2020 offered some benefits. In more normal times I suspect there would have been an assumption that meetings had to the face to face and therefore taken weeks to agree a time suitable to both parties, and with a meeting room available. The changed working environment meant that meetings could often be organised on Teams within a week, and where appropriate records could be shared easily for discussion.

Common concerns expressed in those initial discussions were data protection and confidential content. I was able to offer assurances around ‘archiving in the public interest’. It also helped tremendously that the Senior Data Protection Manager was on board with my work. In terms of confidential content, I also offered assurances around the 20 year rule and the potential for extended closure where appropriate.

The actual transfer was carried out using Quatrix, a POL approved file transfer programme. From a digital preservation perspective this is not ideal as some of the metadata such as dates are altered in the transfer process. However, given the risks posed to digital records I believe it is more important to get the records transferred rather than wait until we have the ideal transfer mechanism in place.

To date this work has resulted in the transfer of 300 files from 3 departments and discussions are ongoing with other departments.

Obviously, this is not a one-off process, but I am hoping that the work this year has laid the groundwork for future transfers. As part of my discussions with retention schedule owners I have agreed when I will follow up, including arranging to follow up next year if they have no material to be transferred this year (usually the case for new departments) or once they have transferred this year’s material. This allows me to retain contact and ensure that this important but not urgent work continues to progress, without becoming someone who is regarded as a pain and therefore ignored.

My key lessons from this year have been to be realistic, be pragmatic, don’t assume existing knowledge, and be persistent. This work has been as much about building relationships as getting records.

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