Both archival management and digital preservation are vast subjects in their own right. As a result, this section can be no more than a signpost to some of the main issues as viewed solely from the perspective of their implications for records management. In this light the primary challenges faced here chiefly relate to ensuring the ongoing security and safety of permanent records and guaranteeing continued access to them in perpetuity.
Why is this important?
Both the content and evidential value associated with some records may require them to be retained for such long periods of time that as far as any member of staff managing them today is concerned and for all practical purposes they can be assumed to require permanent preservation. For example, some records relating to radiation accidents need to be kept for 50 years, whilst some pension records are required for 75 years after the member of staff has left the institution.
The legal rights and interests of the institution and its stakeholders could be put at risk if such records are not preserved.
As well as the operational or legal value inherent in records, a small percentage will also have enduring historic value as archival records. Such records chart the history and development of the institution and act as its collective memory. They represent an important aspect of an institution’s identity and heritage, as well as a potentially valuable marketing tool.
Without appropriate storage conditions physical archives are at risk of decay caused by environmental conditions, (damp, temperature fluctuations, insect infestation etc) and loss due to poor security or a lack of awareness of their intrinsic value.
These same risks apply for electronic records, but within vastly reduced timeframes and as only one of a number of considerable threats faced. The physical media on which electronic records are stored are often extremely sensitive to exposure to damaging environmental conditions and the consequences are likely to be immediate and total.
Electronic records are also at risk of being irretrievable due to hardware obsolescence (for example, the decline of floppy disk drives) and the speed of software advances which may leave records created in one version inaccessible, or altered by their replacement.
How to preserve records
- Where possible allocate separate, fit for purpose physical storage facilities with adequate security and acceptable levels of stability in both temperature and humidity fluctuations (note: cellars, basements and attics – the ‘traditional’ home of the archive are seldom suitable). The National Archives have good guidance on the appropriate physical storage conditions for archival records
- Monitor temperature and humidity levels and take preventative measures if they fluctuate outside acceptable ranges (i.e. install de-humidifiers, heaters etc)
- Ensure you create appropriate finding aids for archival records, which also include details of where the records have come from (their provenance) as well as what they are and where they can be found
- Arrange and describe archival records according to established principles of archival description (ie, by preserving their original order, describing them in a hierarchical order, and keeping a record of the administrative history of the department or unit which created them). See the General International Standard Archival Description, second edition
- Conduct tests prior to migrating records to a new software version. Does the move to a new version introduce any changes to the content, structure or metadata of the record (e.g. changes to formatting, lost header or footer information etc)? If so you must consider whether such changes are acceptable, or whether they could invalidate the records evidential status and take measures accordingly.