What we reckon about keeping digital archives: High level principles guiding our approach September 30, 2011

Over the last couple of months in the new(ish) digital archives project we have been researching, talking to people and thinking quite a lot about the principles that should guide our approach to keeping NSW’s digital State archives. While State Records’ broader Policy on digital records preservation (2007) is still extremely sound and sets up a good policy basis that applies both to us and to NSW public offices, it’s time with this project to address more specifically the philosophy underpinning the design of our processes and systems for keeping permanent value digital records as State archives. So that’s what we have tried to do in these ‘high level principles’, below.

We would love your comments on them. You can either use the commenting facility on the blog or email me; cassandra.findlay@records.nsw.gov.au

Standardised, but flexible

We will support industry standards and protocols wherever possible instead of creating our own.

We will keep the Robert De Niro principle in mind when adopting any software or hardware solutions: “You want to be makin moves on the street, have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner” (Heat, 1995)

Image credit: Warner Bros, Heat movie poster

Image credit: Warner Bros, Heat movie poster

In other words, our digital archives technology will be designed to be sustainable given our limited resources so it will be flexible and scalable to allow us to utilise the most appropriate tools at a given time to carry out actions such as creation of preservation or access copies or monitoring of repository contents, but replace these tools with new ones easily and with minimal cost and with minimal impact.

It’s all about recordkeeping

We consider archival transfer to be a migration of records from one recordkeeping system to another recordkeeping system.

Therefore we will treat each migration as a separate instance – to be considered as a ‘project’ – and we will use the best tools and techniques for the recordkeeping system concerned, based on a thorough analysis of the recordkeeping system, its structure, format dependencies, metadata and export functionalities.

Like any records migration, careful planning, testing and quality control measures are required throughout to ensure that the integrity of the records is protected and their value as evidence is maintained and accessibility is not diminished.

We will be accountable for decisions made about the transfer and management of digital archives, keeping documentation of our system analysis and reasons for our decisions.

The transferring agency should be confident they can continue to rely on the records they have migrated to us after they have been transferred. It should be easy for the transferring agency to access, copy and use their records when they need them, so we will seek utilise agency recordkeeping system structures to provide access to their digital archives.

Let’s not make too much work for ourselves

We will keep as many (or as few) versions of each migrated record as is necessary to ensure accessibility and integrity. All versions to be logically linked to each other and to the ‘original’ record.

We will keep the ‘original’ digital records transferred to us by the agency inviolate and in their original formats, and make copies for access purposes or to combat technology obsolescence threats as required.

Some digital records formats that are transferred to us will require minimal or no preservation actions to be performed on them. This will be determined as part of the assessment of the records prior to transfer. We will only generate additional versions of a record or group of records for access or preservation purposes after we have analysed the risks and options open to us and have determined that it is necessary.

Our digital archives systems will incorporate continuous monitoring of the risks associated with particular groups of records that may require actions such as the creation of a version in a different format for preservation or access reasons.

Metadata is better data

For each migration we will capture as much metadata as possible from the agency recordkeeping system.

We will also keep metadata that demonstrates an authorised and accountable transfer process has occurred, with no loss of integrity to the records.

We will register all digital records in State Records’ control system linked to their broader administrative and functional contexts, and to their access rules.

We will also capture other business specific metadata that we determine in the pre transfer assessment would add value for management purposes. Additional metadata can also add value to users of records where rich description of records can aid in searching, identification and use.

All metadata must be persistently linked with the records themselves.

We will keep metadata on all processes carried out on records from their arrival in our systems onwards. This metadata will be persistently linked with the records themselves, and as much of it as possible will be available to users of the records.

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