Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Mass digitisation of historical records for access and preservation - Dan Jones, Head of Business Development, National Archives

The National Archives holds 175km shelves hold government records but increasingly they operate as a digital archive. For each physical document delivered, 100 are delivered online. Over 60 million documents are already available electronically and the National Archives are at the heart of Government policy on information.

What digitise?
  • Create high quality digital surrogates of records - this helps keep the originals preserved
  • Maximise the access to documents by delivery over the internet
  • Use technology to add value through indexing, contextualisation, search etc.
  • Also use the web to add quality to site visits too and to segment the stakeholders well
Only wholesale digitisation works for this model.

The National Archives are in competition/affected by the likes of Apple, Google, broadband uptake, web 2.0 (wikis/blogs and the "wisdom of crowds"); emergence of specialist provides (esp. genological and military historians in the National Archives case). Thus users want everything now, everywhere, for free.

However in reality the scale of the collection is vast. Over 100 million catalogue entries. The real cost of digitising the whole collection would be around £5 billion. This shows the importance of the strategic partnership with public and private sector. The scale may be vast but we need to make attempts to begin this work.

Models of Digitisation
The National Archives exploits a "mixed economy" to develop these access services with work being internally funded; commercially funded
Grant funded

Services can be free at the point of use or paid for along the lines of agree stakeholder segmentation. To address different needs, different solutions are needed:

  • Strategic partnerships - consistent, repeat, high volume demand
  • Internal delivery - more manageble resources - specific one off items e.g. the Doomsday Book
  • Digital express - you can request digitisation on demand if you can find what you want. But the catalogue is often not at item level.

Strategic Partners - Awarding contracts
  • Avoid costly time consuming services contracts and tenders
  • Requirements are "output driven" rather than "activity driven" - so specificying the what rather than the how and allowing innovation and flexibility
  • Non exclusive - you may want to rerpurpose and segment
  • Encourage competition - to encourage innovation, quality and services to non-core stakeholders
  • Package collections - commercially attractive with less attractive, difficult with easy etc - to avoid cherry picking.
1911 Census
Scanning takes place on an enormous scale working with Scotland Online. It's over 0.5 petabytes of data. Also very commercially attractive so additional services have been built in: academic, schools, statistical analysis etc. will roll out sequentially as well as a service for home users. Launches 2009.

Dan outlined the advantages and disadvantages of strategic partnerships with commercial partners: finanical risk is on the commercial partnerm, maximum access, re-use of data in knowledge economy, allows many products to be developed at once, but potential loss of control, potential divergence of interests of respective parties, have to agree the agenda, it can be a fragmented user journey and you do need to invest a lot of money and time up front to approve and develop processes.

Organisational Impact
This type of approach means a sea change in attitude and means enabling rather than providing services. You entrust the resources to 3rd parties to preserve. There can be a drain on training resource, supervision etc. And you don't spend less resources but you do apply those resources differently.

Cabinet Papers 1916-1976 is an internally delivered project which is funded by JISC, delivered by documents online, big project that will launch in 2009.

The National Archives are improving search substantially to cross search all databases and present it more intuitively. They are also using a wiki (Your Archives) to allow individuals and experts to exchange ideas and information and it recognises the high expertise of users.

Future Challenges
  • NA will continue to digitise collections but also need to look to new markets, new technologies and new partners (e.g. maps are rich resource but not in high demand at the moment).
  • Provide expertise online
  • Continue to develop and apply customer insight tools - Facebook etc. change all the time and we must be able to develop all the time if we want to deliver services well.
  • Financial sustainability is key to all projects and programmes - the answer may in developing cost effective platforms for delivery but it's not a simple question by any means.

The impact of the Digital Archive on NA use has been immense. Over 80 million NA documents delivered digitally in 2007. The growth has been huge and continued. 81.5% of users are satisfied or very satisfied with online services (surveyed 2007). 95% of users are satisfied with our onsite experience. There is global reach and access is being maximised.

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