Trainee Tuesday: When archivists and technology collide!

In the past few months, I have been spreading awareness of digital preservation via a workshop and the notion that digital material, like a word document or excel spreadsheet, is also an archive via displays to the general public.

However, focus has been shifted to the archivists themselves as they are the individuals that will be looking after the digital archives now and in the future.

In the last few years, digital preservation has become a core part of the qualification required to become an archivist, but archivists who have been qualified for longer may not be as aware of the issues surrounding digital preservation or be comfortable with the terminology used when discussing the subject unless they have actively decided to complete a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) module or taken part in training provided by The National Archives, the Archives and Records Association (ARA) or professional bodies.

This may not be accurate for all archive staff but I have also found some are not comfortable with the process of dealing with digital material and all the tools associated with it as it is so different from traditional paper archives.

Trying to get over this barrier that digital archives are not scary and the computer won’t blow up if the wrong button is pressed, I was given the task of training the archive staff at my place of work about the processes to preserve the digital archives that will be deposited.

Some of the skills the archivists already have can be transferrable to working with digital material such as appraising and selecting, gaining information about the record and accessioning. Though gaining of information about the records involves more technical metadata information.

The knowledge they need would be during the ingest process and storage. The ingest process is when the data is submitted to and prepared for inclusion in the digital archives store. For our ingest process, a step-by-step guide was provided along with explanations so the staff knew what each step was and why it is necessary to perform them.

Demonstrations and practical tasks helped them to see how to use the digital preservation software tools West Yorkshire Archive Service use such as DROID and FTK Imager Lite.

With prior knowledge of environmental conditions for storage of traditional paper archives, staff knew that digital media such as CDs, DVDs and cassette tapes needed certain environmental conditions as well.

An assortment of old and new digital media

An assortment of old and new digital media

As seen in the image above, there are a lot of digital media out there. Not all of the digital media present will be used nowadays as they have become obsolete but certainly floppy disks, CDs/ DVDs and memory sticks will be a likely deposit and the files saved on them will become the collections.

The real test came when teaching that digital files like word documents and spreadsheets needed slightly different conditions in the form of a secure and virus-free area on the network.

A new concept for some staff was that digital archives needed to be quarantined for a period of 30 days so that checks can be made to ensure the original file is not corrupt. In addition, they learnt that digital archives cannot be left to fend for themselves as paper archives do. Regular checking and updates for the anti-virus software are necessary.

So far the training has been a success and will hopefully be rolled across the service not just for archivists but other staff members as well. The training is important due to the fact that we are moving in an age where the volume of digital archives is growing as well as the types of media on which they are presented.


  1. Kate Sutton says:

    This is a really interesting post, Naomi – I’ve also found that confidence is an issue. How long does it take for you to train staff?

    1. Naomi Lewis says:

      Thanks Kate! I absolutely agree, confidence can be a barrier for some people too.

      After all the arranging for staff to come over to our head office from the five district offices in West Yorkshire, the training itself didn’t take too long. I planned it to be for only a couple of hours.

  2. David Matthew says:

    Training is important but the crunch is going to come when researchers and members of the public try to get access in 20 or so years or earlier under Freedom of Information, all you need is for someone to mis-spell a description and you won’t be able to find it unlike paper records.

    I think it is not a question of being scared of pressing the wrong button but of staff who know far more about digital records taking over the work of archivists and certainly there is a lot of concern from researchers when for example the Discovery database (to replace the Catalogue at TNA) seems to have been established as an IT project and not a records project, it is now almost a standing question at the Readers’ Forum.

    1. Naomi Lewis says:

      David, thank you for the comment. I agree that access in the future will be a challenge and accuracy is paramount.

      I had not thought of how staff with more knowledge of digital records can be intimidating. It may very well put staff off digital archives Good point to raise!

  3. Emily Rumble says:

    Reading this post and looking at the image brought back loads of memories. Oh the floppy disk. Where you could store about 5 document if you were lucky. It’s amazing how far technology has advanced, even in so few years. Keeping up with technology as an archivist is a further issue. What training you are giving now might be out of date in just a few years, so it’s not a one-time thing. Whenever a new form of digital storage arrives, archivists are going to have to learn the best way to deal with it. It’s easy to imagine archivists working hours in dusty rooms with old documents, but it’s time to update that image, to the tech-savvy archivist!

  4. David Matthew says:

    Whilst archivists do need to be aware and knowledgeable of new technology there are of course many years of paper records (and no dusty rooms) still to be dealt with as well and this does seem to have been submerged in the digital records issues debate.

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