Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Electronic Access: Archives in the New Millennium

Michael Day reports from Kew on the Public Record Office view of the Brave New World of online archives.


A conference on Electronic Access: Archives in the New Milennium was held at the Public Record Office (PRO) [1], Kew, on 3-4 June 1998. The Conference was held as part of the UK Presidency of the European Union. Present (over the two days) were about one hundred and twenty delegates representing a large number of organisations based in the European Union, countries in east-central Europe and the Russian Federation.

The conference opening speech was given by Geoff Hoon MP who is Parliamentary Secretary to the Lord Chancellor. His presentation introduced some of the challenges and opportunities faced by archivists in the information age [2]. Amongst other things, Hoon commented that the Public Record Office would have a major part to play in implementing the proposals of the UK Government’s White Paper on a Freedom of Information Act [3]. He hoped that society would be moving away both from a culture of secrecy and a world in which only elites have access to public documents.

This concern with governmental transparency and freedom of information was also shared by the second speaker, David Lipman of the European Commission Secretatriat-General, who mentioned the 1994 Commission Decision on public access to its documents [4]. This recognised that enabling the widest possible public access to Commission documents is an important factor in ensuring greater openness and transparency within the European Union. This new emphasis on freedom of information and public access meant that archives had to be aware of their important role in ensuring that relevant information was delivered to the public. Giving access to heritage records would remain important for the archives profession, but these changing policies would give archivists also a vital role in upholding governmental transparency and accountability [5].

The Public Record Office, Kew

The Public Record Office, Kew

A UK Archival Network

At the conference, the National Council on Archives (NCA) launched its report Archives on-line proposing an United Kingdom Archival Network [6]. Nicholas Kingsley (Birmingham Central Library and Secretary of the NCA) introduced the report with a paper explaining the background to the study and outlining the scope of the proposed network. The report had originated in the Into the Ether: Vision or Void? workshop held at King’s College London in November 1996 which was organised by the NCA and the Joint Information Systems Commitee (JISC) of the higher education funding councils. The report is a contribution to a continuing debate about the need for improved public access to information technology and networked information. It, therefore, builds on the Library and Information Commission (LIC) report on public libraries, New Library: the People’s Network [7] [8], and other initiatives from the higher education community (a National Agency for Resource Discovery [9], the Anderson Report [10]) and the Department for Education and Employment (the National Grid for Learning [11]).

Archives on-line recommends the creation of a network that will link all UK archives and form a gateway to all archival finding-aids. This network could be based on that proposed for public libraries in the New Library: the People’s Network report with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources. The successful creation of a UK archival network would, however, depend upon the widespread adoption of national and international description standards like ISAD(G), the General International Standard Archival Description [12] and ISAAR(CPF), the International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families [13]. The report outlines the data standards, technologies and management strategies needed for the proposed network. Comments are invited on the report before 30 September 1998.

Public Record Office initiatives and projects

The conference gave an opportunity for a variety of European projects and initiatives to be introduced. Some of the most interesting are those originating at the Public Record Office itself.

Archives Direct 2001 (AD 2001)

Meg Sweet and David Thomas gave a presentation on the PRO’s Archives Direct 2001 (AD2001) Programme [14]. The programme is a series of projects working on improving electronic access to the resources and services of the PRO. Programme aims include the facilitation of online resource discovery through the digitisation of finding-aids, enabling online advance document ordering and mail-order services and the creation of a “virtual museum” with digitised images of selected PRO records. Work is currently in progress on PROCat - the retrospective-conversion of the PRO’s paper-based finding-aids. These documents could not easily be scanned (due to inconsistencies in formats and cataloguing rules) so they are currently being re-keyed by contractors in Mauritius. The converted entries are input into an Inventory List Database available at the Family Records Centre in central London. The PROCat system, when finally developed, will use the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) [15], a Document Type Definition (DTD) of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), to give Web access to the database. The Core Executive Pilot [16] tested the use of EAD with regard to finding-aids of selected records of the central policy-making departments of British Government since 1916. The EAD encoded finding-aids can either be interrogated using a SGML viewer like Softquad’s Panormama or converted ‘on-the-fly’ into HTML for Web browser use.

UK National Digital Archive of Datasets (NDAD)

Kevin Ashley (University of London Computer Centre) introduced the National Digital Archive of Datasets (NDAD) [17]. NDAD is intended to preserve and, where possible, provide access to public records that take the form of datasets. These are public records, usually originating from Government departments and agencies, and which will remain in the legal custody of the Keeper of Public Records at the PRO. The data itself, however, will be managed by external contractors, the University of London Computer Centre (ULCC) and the University of London Library (ULL). Appraisal and selection of the records will continue to be made by government departments in conjunction with the PRO. The datasets will then be transferred to NDAD who will accession the data, create relevant metadata (including tracking-down relevant documentation) and convert the datasets to formats suitable for long-term storage.

Electronic Records in Office Systems (EROS) programme

Another PRO initiative introduced during the first day of the conference was the Electronic Records in Office Systems (EROS) [18] programme. EROS is a series of projects which are primarily concerned with the large amounts of electronic documents which are created in the course of government. The programme’s overall goal is to ensure that electronic records of long-term value are available for future access. Work within EROS involves, for example, working with government departments and providing best practice guidelines. For example, some “Guidelines on the Management of Electronic Records from Office Systems” [19] had been produced in April 1998. Case studies charting the experience of particular goverment departments have also been published. Other EROS initiatives includes work on standards and appraisal. A pilot project using documents from the Cabinet Office (the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life) was used to test some of the practical issues of appraisal, preservation and ensuring access. Material was received in a variety of formats and made accessible in PDF.

Electronic records

The second day of the conference mostly concerned electronic records and recordkeeping. It started with a short reflection by Roy Dibble of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the challenges of electronic records in government departments. He commented that the use of electronic systems in government had not (despite widespread predictions) alleviated the vast growth of paper, so electronic recordkeeping systems would need to integrate with paper in “hybrid” systems for the foreseeable future. Andrew Holt and Steve Wells of the Department of Health followed this with a description and demonstration of a electronic records management solution being implemented by that Department.

The DLM-Forum and European initiatives

The remainder of the day mostly related to European Commission initiatives, and in particular the work of the DLM-Forum on electronic records. Hans Hofmann (European Commission, Secretariat-General) outlined the ten follow-up points [20] established at the 1st DLM-Forum on electronic records held in Brussels in December 1996 [21]. Ian Macfarlane (PRO) described the work of a DLM-Forum working group on electronic records management systems which is producing a draft specification for software suppliers. Claes Gränström (National Archives of Sweden) followed this with a pessimistic review of proposed European Union directives concerning data protection and copyright.

The remaining sessions considered training issues in a European context. Maria Pia Rinaldi Mariani (Ministry of Cultural Assets, Italy) outlined the work of the DLM-Forum Working Group on Training Matters and Michael Wettlinger (Bundesarchiv, Koblenz) described the “core competencies” for electronic recordkeeping formulated by this Working Group [22]. There followed descriptions of training programmes being implemented in Glasgow [23] and the Netherlands.


The Electronic Access conference brought up many issues and generated a lot of interesting comment and questions. In particular it gave an opportunity to introduce several European initiatives, including important work being carried out at the PRO and the activities of the DLM-Forum. Several issues were brought up more than once during the conference. Some of these are discussed below.


  1. Public Record Office.
  2. Geoff Hoon MP, Conference opening speech, Electronic Access: Archives in the New Milennium, Public Record Office, Kew, 3 June 1998.
  3. Your right to know: the Government’s proposals for a Freedom of Information Act. Presented to Parliament by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by Command of Her Majesty, December 1997. Cm. 3818. London: The Stationery Office.
  4. Access to Commission Documents: a citizen’s guide. Brussels: European Commission Secretariat-General.
  5. For an US view on the challenges that electronic records pose to freedom of information, see: Thomas Elton Brown, The Freedom of Information Act in the information age: the electronic challenge to the people’s right to know. American Archivist, Vol. 58, no. 2, Spring 1995, pp. 202-211.
  6. Archives on-line: the establishment of a United Kingdom Archival Network. National Council on Archives, 1998.
  7. New Library: the People’s Network. Library and Information Commission, 15th October 1997.
  8. Department for Culture, Media and Sport “New library: the people’s network”: the Government’s response. Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport by Command of Her Majesty, July 1998. Cm. 3887. London: The Stationery Office.
  9. Peter Brophy, Shelagh Fisher, Geoffrey Hare and David Kay, Towards a National Agency for Resource Discovery: Scoping Study. British Library Research and Innovation Report, 58. British Library Research and Innovation Centre, July 1997.
  10. Joint Funding Council’s Library Review: Report of the Group on a National/Regional Strategy for Library Provision for Researchers (The Anderson Report), 1996.
  11. Department for Education and Employment, Connecting the Learning Society: The Government’s consultation paper on the National Grid for Learning: a summary, 1997.
  12. International Council on Archives, ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description. Ottawa: ICA, 1994.
  13. International Council on Archives, ISAAR(CPF): International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families, Ottawa: ICA, 1996.
  14. Archives Direct 2001 (AD 2001).
  15. Encoded Archival Description.
  16. Core Executive Pilot.
  17. National Digital Archive of Datasets (NDAD).
  18. Electronic Records in Office Systems (EROS).
  19. Ian Macfarlane, Richard Blake, Stephen Harries and Alun David, Guidelines on the management and appraisal of electronic records. Kew: Public Record Office, April 1998.
  20. DLM-Forum, Ten follow-up points on the DLM-Forum.
  21. Proceedings of the DLM-Forum on electronic records, Brussels, 18-20 December 1996. INSAR (European Archives News) supplement II. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1997.
  22. Michael Wettengel, Core competence for electronic recordkeeping, 4 June 1998.
  23. University of Glasgow, Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute, MPhil in Digital Management and Preservation.
  24. DLM-Forum Electronic Records.
  25. Richard J. Cox, Access in the digital information age and the archival mission: the United States. Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol. 19, No. 1, 1998, pp. 25-40.
  26. DLM-Forum, Guidelines on best practices for using electronic information, updated and enlarged ed. INSAR (European Archives News) supplement III. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1997.
  27. University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences, Functional Requirements for Evidence in Recordkeeping project.

Author Details

Michael Day
Research Officer
UKOLN: the UK Office for Library and Information Networking
University of Bath
Bath BA2 7AY, UK
E-mail: m.day@ukoln.ac.uk