Digital Mandate

Current issues in digital recordkeeping
 Danny Dawson

Danny Dawson, Production Manager in NFSA Preservation and Technical Services, outlines some current issues surrounding digital recordkeeping in public agencies and how they apply to the NFSA.
Film reel with bacterial damage


I recently attended a conference organised by the National Archives of Australia (NAA) as part of Information Awareness Month. Entitled ‘Digital Mandate – A National Advantage’ the conference was an excellent opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of how digitisation and information management affects other public service agencies and their interactions with the Government’s Digital Transition policy.


Digitisation isn’t just an issue for the NFSA; rather there is a mandate for all government departments to embrace the benefits that digital technology can offer for information management and realising the value of that data. In fact, by 2015, all public records submitted to the NAA will need to be in a digital format.

Jack Waterford, a prominent Canberra journalist and advocate for freedom of information, opened the morning session. He laid the foundation for why good recordkeeping in public administration circles is so important in transparency of government and accessibility. Ironically, due to the rapid evolution of digital formats over the last 10-20 years, the public have more trouble accessing public records content created during this period than any other time in the history of public recordkeeping. Subsequently, many files created in this period are seemingly ‘lost’ due to the inability to access what are now obsolete digital formats.

In the context of a film and sound archive his arguments can extend to format obsolescence and the challenges audiovisual archives face maintaining equipment to playback material (such as a 2” Video Tape Recorder) through to how we normalise and maintain our collection once it is preserved in the digital domain.

Stephen Sedgewick, the Australian Public Service Commissioner, gave an overview of how digital information in the public sector can help drive efficiency, and therefore better service delivery in the public service. He was wary of the amount of information being generated across the sector and discussed ways to filter information so the right people accessed the right data at the right time.

Interestingly he also touched on something directly relevant to the NFSA, challenging the audience to think about compatibility with archiving digital content at the time of creation. In a world where film and sound is predominantly being created in digital formats, engagement and education with the production sectors to deliver preferred formats for preservation should make our job just that little bit easier; however that is easier said than done.

Sedgewick also highlighted the challenges of transitioning staff from an analogue to a digital world. For me this is directly relevant to a key project currently being delivered at the NFSA. Our Digital Media Project is helping the organisation focus on what ‘digital’ means in our core work practices; a key outcome being training staff to use and understand digital media, digital tools and digital content management from acquisition through to preservation.

This is a challenge in an organisation that needs to understand and be experts in technology spanning from the first days of moving image and recorded sound, through to today’s contemporary formats. For example, our Motion Picture Laboratory staff operate a fully functioning black-and-white photochemical duplication facility. The same staff are also now using digital scanning solutions having implemented a small gauge scanner 12 months ago. We’ve recently also taken delivery of a 16mm film scanner.

I was also interested to hear from Allan McKinnon, Deputy National Security Advisor in Prime Minister and Cabinet. McKinnon is responsible for cyber security and ensuring the government’s technology systems are secure. In an age of WikiLeaks and cyber attack, his preferred approach is to not shut down access, but instead to build robust digital systems with appropriate classification systems to once again ensure the right people can access the information at the right level.

This isn’t too dissimilar to the NFSA in the context of upholding and protecting copyright law and restricted Indigenous collection items. Ensuring the right data is maintained in our media asset management systems will help us to ensure appropriate access to our collection is given to the people who are ‘cleared’ to see it.

Further to this McKinnon outlined the debate in the security world about how much information to collect and whether agencies should collect it all. This struck a chord for me in relation to legal deposit and the pros and cons of available models should this be implemented for the NFSA.

David Fricker, Director General of the NAA, presented on the NAA’s delivery of the Digital Transition policy and the leadership required to ensure the public record is maintained. I now have a new appreciation for my responsibilities toward information management as a public servant. Importantly, and in the context of my position as Production Manager in the Preservation section at the NFSA, the call to be bold and innovative to get the most out of what technology can offer supports the NFSA’s current approach. This underpins some key components of the NFSA’s preservation strategy to continually maximise preservation output by exploring and implementing new technologies and workflows.

The efficiencies that Fricker and the other speakers highlighted that are possible by utilising digital technologies in our business is exactly what the NFSA is seeking to achieve as we continue the integration of Mediaflex into our everyday work. Mediaflex, the NFSA’s media asset management system, is able to integrate with many of the digital tools we use to preserve our collections. Over time it will house a pool of digital content that will enable better accessibility for our citizens; much in the same way as the public sector is trying to achieve in the Digital Transition.

The other salient point that Fricker outlined was that archives need to uphold public integrity and be the trusted source of our nation’s history. This highlights the importance of solid procedures to enter verified data about our collection. If the NFSA as stewards of our nation’s film and sound heritage cannot be a trusted authority, who can?

You soon realise that you are not alone when it comes to managing large collections and the digitisation and preservation of records, and keeping them accessible for future generations to enjoy.