“Archives for the 21st Century”

Almost a decade into the 21st century, and in the likely dying days of the current government, the UK has a new policy on “archives” – defined in the document as the publicly-funded archive sector in England and Wales.  The policy is available via http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/policy/aft21c/

Given my current roles I wanted to see how well the policy recognises the need in the digital age to manage records throughout the continuum to ensure that some become records selected for permanent preservation ie archives.  I’m also particularly interested in aspects of workforce development, given how vital the effectiveness of the workforce is to the preservation of the record.  So this is a partial view of the policy.

The Foreword acknowledges in its second sentence “the importance of capturing digital material” and “the challenges of preserving digital information”.  It goes on to describe how

The information world has changed beyond all recognition since the last policy on archives was published ten years ago.  Both the creation and the use of information have been revolutionised, not least through our ability to go online without being tied to a computer at home or in the office, or to work while on the move with technology that has become smaller, faster and more sophisticated.

Section 1.2 recognises “a decline in the recognition of the need to link current record keeping in all formats with preserving archives”; Section 1.4 recognises the problems “for identifying and capturing the key records that must be kept, in addition to then preserving them for the future.  Managing electronic records presents a number of issues both in the scale of the challenge and the required technical skills set”.

The Vision in Section 2 is predicated on the continuing availability of records and on an implicit assumption of the role of records management – or involvement by recordkeeping professionals at the beginning of the continuum.

Among the (many) challenges listed in section 3, the policy includes the need to address

  • archive collection development
  • dynamic leadership
  • the management of digital records – with an explicit statment that archive services’ “parent bodies often do not have active record management systems for identifying paper or digital records of long-term value and transferring them to the archives”.

The response section 4 outlines how the vision and the challenges can be reconciled, including via:

  • closer cooperation at the culture & heritage side of the spectrum (but not with IT/technical, legal/compliance, performance management etc etc);
  • strengthening leadership and raising the profile of the profession, including supporting the development of leadership and professional skills which “will be promoted to create a diverse, vibrant and skilled workforce”.
    Also included is an explicit mention of the need to retain traditional interpretative skills and conservation skills – but nothing about specific “modern” (for want of a better word) skills.
    Good to see the inclusion of qualifications based on National Occupational Standards, the need for continuing professional development, and for constant evaluation and revision of provision by training bodies.
  • managing digital information.  Specifically that “It is important to establish clear connections between records management and archival functions within an organisation to make sure that key records are identified and transferred into the archive.”
  • considering the positioning of archives within the parent organisation – “direct involvement in the decision-making process is key to ensuring the informational and cultural value of archives is realised to the full.”

I think, given the constraints on it, the policy does a good job in a limited view of “archives” – not least of which is viewing archival records at the heritage end of the continuum.  It does at least acknowledge some link between archival records and the creation/use of records before selection.  It doesn’t address appraisal and selection, and the impact of the range of issues from web 2.0/”digital native” user expectations/lower computing storage costs etc.

It will be extremely interesting over the coming months to see how the action plans for England and Wales from The National Archives/MLA/CyMAL address these recommendations, and also how the profession as a whole responds both to the policy and to the plans.  And what happens come the election, of course.

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