IF on retreat: The National Archives

A couple of weeks ago, we took a few days out of the office to reflect on the work from the past few months. This was a good time for new members of IF (such as myself) to get to know the rest of the team, and learn about the work IF has been doing.

Our retreat included a visit to The National Archives in Kew. The mission of the archives is to build and maintain a collection of items which are a matter of public record (a slightly nebulous term) in the UK. Capturing these records and providing the public access to them is an important part of holding past and current governments to account. In order to be successful in this mission, the public and the government must be able to trust the archives. They have been carrying out this role now for hundreds of years.

As the collection becomes increasingly digital, the archives are faced with some serious challenges. Some of these are shared only by other national archives around the world, but many are shared with other organisations.

National Archives

Board of Trade book of registered designs IF CC-BY

Government must have trust in the archives

The National Archives’ physical collection may be viewed in the reading rooms at Kew or by paying a fee to have a copy produced and sent out to you. This means the archive is mostly accessed by historians and academic researchers. Providing access to the archives digitised records significantly reduces the friction to access the collection. Not only does it change the medium but also the way that the collection is navigated. Archivists capture documents in a way which retains the context of the record, like where the document originated and why it is a matter of public record. This builds up in a tree like structure the catalogue which can be navigated on The National Archives website.

Online documents are often navigated in different ways, e.g. by searching for terms in the document you are looking for. This lacks some of the context the archives seek to preserve.

On the face of it, making it easier to access the archives seems like it could only be a good thing. However it puts the archives in a position where the amount of trust government places in them may be revisited.

In the past, departments would send records with the knowledge they would probably only be accessed on a small scale, if at all. That changes if the documents are made available digitally. Records could become available to machine access by a search or machine learning algorithm. What happens when it’s possible to search the digital archive for embarrassing comments and tweet them automatically? Departments may be inclined to see the archive as a liability, and revisit their interpretation of which records are a ‘matter of public record’ or which documents should be redacted.

Perhaps some systems require a level of friction in the process to maintain the trust in the system.

Ensuring integrity of the collection

Unlike in a library, when you access a document in the archives you are viewing an original, not a copy. As such when accessing documents at the reading rooms in Kew you’ll need a “readers ticket” used to identify you. Some limitations are also placed on what you can take into the reading rooms: paper, pens and pencils are not allowed. Further limitations are made on the extremely rare documents held by the archives, requiring them to be accessed in specific rooms accompanied by a member of staff. These limitations are set to protect the integrity of the collection.

Not only does the collection need to be protected from small-scale editing in the reading rooms, it’s also necessary to consider protections from the state itself. Unfortunately we don’t need to look back very far in history to find examples of this kind of revisionism elsewhere around the world. This might seem like a unlikely scenario in the UK but it’s worth considering when your responsibilities are those of the national archive.

As the collections move to be mostly digital, the archives faces similar challenges in entirely different mediums. For instance, if a courtroom recording is supplied to the archive from the supreme court, how do they ensure integrity of the video? What if the format is proprietary or is too old for modern media players? They may need to re-encode the video - how can this be done keeping track of the integrity? These kinds of questions are being asked and answered by the research program ARCHANGEL, currently underway at at the archives. We’re looking forward to hearing more about how they approach these challenges.

We’d like to thank all the staff at the archives for making it such a great day. Particularly to John for an excellent thought provoking talk, Tricia and Patrick for the tour and to Emily for organising our visit. We’d like to remind readers that The National Archives is free to visit at their wonderful “brutalist masterpiece” in Kew.