Some of the key challenges relating to the preservation of records from an EDRMS or other record keeping system are articulated below:


No one-size-fits-all solution

There isn’t a single simple approach to the preservation of records. If you are looking for a quick fix you are unlikely to find it in this resource! There are many record keeping systems available and numerous ways that institutions can configure and use a system. There are also numerous different approaches to digital preservation. The fact that different organizations tend to have different systems, different records management policies and different priorities leads to variations in how the preservation challenge will be tackled. 


Preservation at scale

Within a single record keeping system an organization may have tens of thousands of records and a proportion of these may need to be preserved for the long term. Some organizations will have more than one record keeping system they need to turn their attention to (perhaps including legacy systems). Any other challenges associated with preservation are magnified when attempting operations such as this at scale and this can be daunting.


Understanding how the system works and is used

Like so many digital preservation tasks, it is hard to move forward without really understanding what you are trying to preserve. It is important to work with relevant stakeholders to understand the record keeping system and how it is used. As is evidenced by this resource, a substantial amount of background work is required before preservation action can happen. Much of this resource therefore consists of lists of questions that you will need to ask in order to find out more. 


Knowing which records to keep

A records retention schedule is invaluable for establishing which records need to be kept for the long term, who is responsible for them and what actions should be taken on them (retain/transfer/destroy). In an ideal world these retention periods are built into or mapped to the record keeping system in use, allowing reports and queries to be created to inform the preservation process, but this will not always be the case. In some situations a more manual process will be required to establish how long records need to be retained, and therefore which require long-term preservation. In addition, system configuration can result in issues relating to records accessibility, for example security settings within the record keeping system may mean some content is difficult or impossible to access, while some business systems may overwrite or delete metadata or audit files after a set period of time. 


Knowing which version to keep

A record keeping system may keep multiple versions of the same record but the retention schedule may not go into this level of detail regarding which version/s to preserve. This situation can be further complicated when an organization keeps records in a mixture of analogue and digital formats. In some cases, the master version of a record may be a document that has since been printed out and physically signed, in which case, the original digital record may no longer be important. Decisions made on which version to keep should take into account how the record keeping system handles versions, what procedures are in place for creating versions and how record creators behave. Records and their versions need to be understood in context. For some organizations it may be logical to implement a policy to retain only the final version of a record. In other situations, users of the system may be able to flag up other versions that need to be preserved. It should be noted that the context of the organization and the records is important here - draft versions can be important legal or historical documents and should be assessed carefully.


Assessing the content - file formats

It can be a challenge to get an overview of exactly what is in a record keeping system. Unfortunately it is often not possible to get an accurate report on file formats. File format identification within a record keeping system such as an EDRMS typically looks only at MIME type or file extension and it is not always possible to run DROID or other file format identification tools over the content until it has been extracted out of the system. For planning purposes, a digital archivist may prefer to have that information at an earlier stage of the process. 


Metadata - too much or too little? 

The record keeping system may store lots of metadata, often in accordance with jurisdictional or international standards. This is clearly a good thing from a digital preservation perspective, but also brings challenges. It may not be straightforward to understand the different metadata fields and how and why they have been created or generated, or to establish which are useful to retain within the digital archive. Conversely, some systems may have very little metadata, or metadata that is challenging to access and/or extract.


Technical challenges

Depending on the preservation approach selected you may need to explore available options for export and/or transfer of records from the system in which they reside and establish a workflow or process. It may be possible to set up an automated transfer to your digital archive but this is technically complex and dependent on many factors including the availability of APIs, compatibility of systems and skills available. Emulation is an alternative preservation approach but comes with its own technical complexities.


User expectations

Providing access to records after they have been preserved is another challenge. If users have had these records easily accessible within their current record keeping system they may have high expectations for the same level of access once the records are in the archive. 


An ongoing challenge

Unless the record keeping system is a legacy system, it is likely that selection of records and transfer to the digital archive will be an activity that will be repeated over time. There are particular challenges associated with this. You will need to consider frequency of transfer, what happens to those records that have been transferred (will they exist in both locations or just the digital archive?), how you manage new versions of records, and how you ensure you don’t transfer the same record twice.


In his talk at the EDRMS Preservation Briefing Day, Jamie Dawes-Hughes from the Welsh Government provided a short case study highlighting some of the challenges encountered when attempting to export records from an EDRMS for submission to The National Archives UK - ‘Preserving the Welsh Government’s digital records’, a presentation at Unbroken records: A briefing day on Digital Preservation and EDRMS, 20th May 2021 (DPC members login to view the recording).

Preserving the Welsh Government’s digital records  - Jamie Dawes-Hughes (Welsh Government)

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