'Born-digital' records a minefield for archivists

Audits by Archives New Zealand show many public agencies fail to display significant archiving maturity.

Archivists, especially in the public sector, are struggling to manage digital records after a decade or more of ad hoc records management projects by individual government agencies, Archives New Zealand says.

In response, the agency has developed an interim operating model and completed five "e-accessions" of digital records into the Government Digital Archive. However, that process in itself highlighted further challenges.

In a report (pdf) on its agency audits in 2014 and 2015, Archives NZ said it was disappointing to see that although the Public Records Act 2005 was now a decade old, barely half the offices audited had significant records keeping maturity.

Management of "born-digital" records in particular has been hampered by a generation of fragmented approaches.

"The legacy of this era is a complex environment in which to develop processes for disposal, transfer and the future management of born-digital records," the report from chief archivist Marilyn Little says.

Dealing with that fragmentation requires Archives to have a consistent and coherent approach to managing access, preservation and storage and to defend the integrity of the original records from alteration.

"Ultimately, there should be a comprehensive process for government-wide management of born-digital records and a government digital archive system for storage of records for access and preservation," the report says.

The interim model is not that but will be the basis of development. It is that work that led to the five e-accessions into the Government Digital Archive, all from records already held by Archives NZ.

That will be followed by transfers from other agencies to test end-to-end processes, but lessons are already being learned.

Archives NZ says the e-accessions have a high level of complexity that requires specially trained staff, standard records management disciplines are "valuable but not sufficient", and core principles of management have to be adapted to meet the needs of the digital environment.

The agency also discovered shortcomings in its own public archival database, Archway. This can display basic information about records but not more complex information that would improve search.

Item-to-item relationships, for instance, cannot be displayed between records.

In addition, Archives is concerned about the integrity of records transferred.

"There is a risk that the migration of records between systems will affect records' authenticity, accuracy, and reliability, and these need to be actively managed, " the report says.