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St George’s, University of London: keeping up with digital archives

When it comes to records, preservation helps St George's manage risk in case something goes wrong and so, in effect, helps manage their reputation.

"It's so great working with Jisc, because it means that we've got experts on our side with a common goal. We can access the community, get a lot of information, learn from that and share our knowledge,”

says Kirsten Hylan, records manager at St George’s, University of London.

Jisc’s recently launched preservation service has been piloted at St George’s, University of London, which, as a specialist health institution, ensuring the compliance and the appropriate data obligations are met is of the utmost importance – especially when it comes to the clinical trial data that needs to be kept for a very long period of time.

Making sure you manage risks

Preservation is a fully managed, software as a service (SaaS), shared platform developed to support higher education institutions (HEIs) manage, store and preserve outputs. The service is interoperable with universities’ existing systems and workflows and aids records managers manage and backup data so it is accessible in the many years to come – even when digital formats change.

Kirsten Hylan

For Kirsten, preservation is relevant in a plethora of ways in her institution, especially when it comes to managing risks:

“We need to make sure we meet our legislative and regulatory obligations and guarantee that our records are accessible, available and authentic, and that's where Preservation comes in.”

Preservation has also shown to be key in the organisation’s research funding and in starting to develop a long-term preservation framework.  Kirsten says:

“From a research point of view, many funders want us to have a preservation strategy, otherwise, there's a risk that we could miss out on funding and our research can't move forward if we didn't have a system in place.

“We've got some wonderful physical items in the archive, but we have to think that the archive is and will still keep on growing. We also must consider how our archive will keep on presenting a picture of St George’s history. In addition, researchers, both internal and external, will need to keep access to our archive, so prioritising digital preservation is a must. Jisc has really helped us start a digital preservation framework and is advising how we can manage it.”

Preserving information for the future

So far St George’s has used the preservation tool to preserve governance documents, council and senate papers. Kirsten observes:

“Sounds a bit dry now, but it may not be so in 100 years’ time. These papers are an overview of what courses we’re running, how big we are and what it is that we do; which could be quite fascinating and it could become an important historical documentation way down the line."

She also explains that with these records, many researchers in the future will get a glimpse of how people used to live and how life was in the past. The archives being preserved in the present day will give a better idea of how things were during the COVID-19 pandemic to people doing research about this subject in the years to come.

The institution has also ingested many of their postmodern casebooks, which is a unique collection at dating back 200 years. In this particular collection, Kirsten comments that, 

“Some of the entries are really amazing, such as curious medical cases from the past. We're really happy we’re getting started in adding some of these records into the system.”

Kirsten says she understands that many people in the institution who don’t work directly with records management or archives, don’t actually know the importance of preserving these documents, which is not unexpected. In her opinion, this is why it is so central to approach the subject in a way that the benefits of using preservation are clearly explained, although she also needs to ensure that she is aware of the barriers each department faces in order to implement the new process with this tool.

Kirsten said:

“Before preservation, we would have some manual processes taking place and, at times, we would lose access to some datasets that would be quite valuable, since you’d get people thinking calling a dataset ‘Archives’ and just saving files there would do the job.

“We generate digital collections of considerable value such as records, research data and special collections. There is an expectation from staff, students, the public and funders that these collections will remain available for as long as they are required. However, because we all know the pace of technology changes so quickly, and something you could access 10 or 15 years ago is suddenly out of range, if we don't take action to protect our collections more, we could lose access to them. The problem just continues to grow.”

The importance of getting stakeholder buy-in

Getting internal advocacy is key for implementing preservation at St George’s, according to Kirsten. She explains that her and her project team – also comprised by the institution’s research data manager and the archivist – can’t make decisions in isolation and they need their internal stakeholders’ buy-in across her institution to give this new preservation framework a push.

With preservation, the institution’s departments can now enlarge the scope of what is being preserved and, with so many formats coming out especially on the research side, it is imperative that they keep up with the pace of change.

As there are numerous departments in St George’s, working on various different things, Kirsten is aiming to implement the use of preservation in the whole institution in the next two years.

At first, Kirsten is prioritising the key areas in her institution, the ones in which the archives will have the most impact. Afterwards, as the implementation of the preservation service is completed in these key teams, Kirsten will use the success stories as case studies to get the buy-in from the “second-phase” priority departments and so on, helping them to get on board with the changes and to get excited to see the impact the service has brought to the other teams into their own space.

She said:

“As much as I’d like for this implementation to go quickly, I have to work with the culture of the organisation. I don’t have a big team and we need to work with the resource that we have, so we need to be realistic on what we can do. This is one of the reasons why working with Jisc is so beneficial to us, we get a lot of support.”