The National Archives sets out two-year plan to ensure digital future

Archives Unlocked strategy focuses on the potential of digital to increase resilience and innovation, as £1m fund set to boost digital training

The National Archives is based in Kew, London – Photo credit: PA

The National Archives has set out plans to develop its capacity to preserve digital records, build up the sector’s resilience and a £1m investment to train up the next generation of digital archivists.

The two-year action plan, Archives Unlocked, was launched at an event at the Southbank Centre today, in a bid to drive innovation and digital transformation at the UK’s archives.

Jeff James, chief executive and Keeper at The National Archives, said that the body is “at the heart of a rich, national collection of archives buoyed by skilled and innovative professionals”.

However, he said, “more needs to be done so that we can sustain the sector for the long term”.

The latest plan aims to define what work is needed over the next two years to “release the power of the archives”, James said.

Writing in the introduction to the Archives Unlocked vision, James stressed the importance of digital in allowing archivists everyone to open up their collections.

“Digital technologies are creating a paradigm shift in the archival sphere: posing challenges, but also throwing open the doors to greater access and a world of new opportunities,” he said.


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The Archives Unlocked document sets out three main challenges that the sector wants to address: digital, resilience and impact, although the theme of digital runs through each of them.

Writing in the document, John Sheridan, the digital director of the archives, said that the digital challenge for the archives “is one of pace”, and that disruptions in the way information is created, encoded and used need “fundamentally new capabilities and approaches” to archiving.

“Today’s digital archivists must rapidly develop new archival practices, with and for each new generation of technology,” he said. “The rub is that the digital challenge for archives can never be completely solved..We are moving from relative stability to continual change.”

Sheridan also emphasised the importance of ensuring that the public can trust digital archives, which means a shift from the authority of the archive as an institution to the transparency of archival practice – demonstrating what archivists are doing in ways that other people can see and verify for themselves.

Sustainability, resilience and impact

Within the digital strand of the strategy, The National Archives sets out plans to build up its digital capacity to allow it to both preserve digital records and make it easier for people to search and find paper records. 

Part of this will include a the development of a digital capacity building programme for the sector, which will address digital preservation, discoverability and digitisation.

There will also be work increased access to archives through innovation in online catalogues and data collation, analysis and reuse, and to share learning and best practice in local and regional digital preservation projects.

In addition, there will be digital standards developed for the Archive Service Accreditation standard, which defines good practice in archive services and helps services manage and improve their efficiency and effectiveness.

The resilience strand of The National Archives’ work aims to ensure that archives can take advantage of new skills, to establish a more diverse workforce and to offer greater support for innovation in the sector.

The final challenge is to demonstrate the impact of archives, which will be done by working to influence thinking in IT and commercial sectors, piloting new approaches to using data and evidence, and by increasing its audience base.

“Working with partners, stakeholders, investors and individuals, we will have greater potential and influence to accomplish what we need to do,” said James.

“The UK will be home to world-leading archives: both digital and physical.”

Alongside the plan is a £1m investment in a digital archivist trainee scheme – of which £749,300 comes from a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund – that will see 24 digital traineeships in archives around England in 2018.

The first phase of the work, a smaller award of around £30,000, helped The National Archives develop a training plan in digital archival skills and a recruitment strategy that would bring in a broad range of candidates.

The rest of the funding comes from The National Archives’ innovation fund as well as other partners.

‘Democratising history’

Speaking at the launch event, Matt Hancock, the minister for digital and culture, said that advances in technology had increase people’s “thirst for knowledge”, with people expecting easier access to information. This easier access, he said, “democratises our history”.

Hancock said that The National Archives’ vision “will help build world-class digital archives so that everyone across the country can easily access important national records at the touch of a button.

“This strategy will help unlock the potential of archives and build a yet more diverse and innovative sector.”

The plan comes at a time when digital record-keeping and information management are under ever-greater scrutiny, following a report that found that poorly organised information on past policy interventions could be costing the government £500m a year in wasted efforts.

Although the Better Information for Better Government report, published by the Cabinet Office in January, said that the government was “generally good” at managing paper-based records, the shift to digital information had “undermined the rigour of information management”.

The current state of record-keeping creates “real and immediate risks” for operations, information compliance and the government’s reputation, for instance when responding to inquiries and FOI requests, it said.

The report added that there was an “immediate need” to address the situation, and recommended that the Cabinet Office, the Government Digital Service and The National Archives worked together to prepare for future digital record-keeping.


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