Nick Thomas-Symonds MP is co-Chair of the All-Party Group on Archives and History for UK Parliament.

This blog post is the text for a speech delivered by Nick Thomas-Symonds MP on 30 November 2017 at a RecordDNA event at Westminster.


As Co-Chair of the All Parliamentary Archives Group I am delighted to open this event, which is being held on International Digital Preservation Day. Delighted also to welcome such an impressive range of speakers. Let me start by thanking Elizabeth Lomas of UCL and Julie McLeod of Northumbria University, for organising and implementing such an impressive programme. Thanks also to all of you for coming. You are a critical part of this partnership.

Records matter. We all depend on them. Members of Parliament rely on them to inform debate, make better laws and hold the executive to account. Everyone will at some point need records, whether investigators into injustice, members of the public researching their family history or needing access to their health history, or scholars needing an evidence base for their research.

I have used records in both a (professional) legal context and as an historian. Looking at the history of the post-war Labour government is relatively easy through the traditional paper records and archives. Despite the inevitable gaps, much of the time we can piece things together. But how will future researchers be able, for example, to assess the May administration objectively if the basic DNA of records – no longer paper – has atomised into multiple, unrelated digital formats and platforms that cannot interface?

I fear we have become so used to our records being easily accessible that we now take them for granted. That’s why events like today’s are so important, if you like, to kick us out of our complacency. We need to get focused on digital preservation and get it right.

It may be instructive to start with the basics. When we talk about records, we mean access to original, authentic and useable records. Evidence that can be used now to improve the quality of our governance and our economy – ie, business in the broadest sense - and evidence that can be used in the future to advance research and innovation, transparency and accountability. That was the original genius of vellum many centuries ago, and then paper, perhaps the most important inventions in the development of our civilisation.

But we now face an unprecedented risk. And it’s because of the digital revolution. The digital world unquestionably offers many extraordinary opportunities – e-government, new commercial advantages and citizen engagement, being just three. But also many challenges, because of how we create and capture information, how we preserve it as evidence and how we cope with the speed of change in this whole process.

In a Civil Service context, records are no longer neatly filed together and managed in registries, but captured in, for example, chains of emails or tweets, or on other social media platforms or instant chat networks like Slack. Records are scattered yet also linked. This atomisation affects our ability to capture an authentic evidence base as well as interrogate it. In this way, many copies of a document may exist with unclear authorship, or the definitive original may disappear into a seemingly infinite cyberspace.

Imagine going back to the pre-census period of history, before archivists and records managers existed as a professional community. The only evidence of ‘people’ and ‘decisions’ that we have is that which was recorded and preserved by accident or because money or property was involved, such as legal and land documents - or propaganda.

For most of the last two thousand years of our history, there is a records ‘black hole’, as if the vast majority of people as individuals had never existed.

Records are the bedrock of identity and modern ‘citizenship’ in its broadest sense. If we were unable to fashion a new DNA of our records in the digital age – and lurch into a so-called ‘digital black hole’ – the impact on society would be incalculable.

So what does all this mean for the future evidence base? What kind of evidence base do we want and how can we capture it and ensure its useability?

These questions are not easy to answer and different people will have different views and needs. We need to engage and listen to the different perspectives of records/evidence creators and users. This includes – crucially – the inventers, innovators and engineers who design systems and develop the technology and tools we use to communicate, as well as to create and capture our evidence.

But, as a starting point, we must recognise the vital strategic importance to organisations of professional records managers.

I’m particularly pleased – not to say relieved! - that a significant number of you, the ‘experts’ in the records profession, have foreseen this risk and are doing something about it. No pressure, all of you!

And I’m especially pleased that you’ve approached the All-Party Group to support this event. As representatives of the people, we must involve ourselves in such matters. Your efforts to create an international network of ideas and consensus on this crucial issue - and develop solutions - deserve our support.

With your insights and efforts, we’ll hopefully be able to advance digital records research and practice so that we skirt the ‘black hole’.

But I also hope we can be a bit more ambitious. Maybe our collective goal should be to reach a point where future generations have an even better quality of evidence base to underpin social, economic and democratic development.

Please do come back and brief us again regularly.



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