Adapting OAIS for records management

In planning this project we’re obviously referencing the OAIS standard for a digital archive.

To quote from Wikipedia, ‘Open Archival Information System (or OAIS) is an archive, consisting of an organization of people and systems, that has accepted the responsibility to preserve information and make it available for a Designated Community’.

The OAIS approach reminds me of the old style paper records store method for managing records. We (the records manager) receive the closed files and store them safely and securely. When a record is required we are asked by the department for a specific box or file. We then make it available.

This is being replicated in several ways in current records management approaches. At one conference I heard of one organisation moving its paper files to offsite storage, then providing a ‘scan on demand’ approach when a file was requested. The offsite store would provide a scanned copy and email it to the requesting department. I thought this was a nice way of sidestepping a massive digitisation project – a digital ‘copy’ is provided when required, the mass of original paper retained in a low-cost storage environment.

In-house electronic document management solutions, from a simple intranet to a full blown EDRMS, have often relied on the information being available instantly via a search.  That obviously relies on the quality of the stored records and speed / accuracy of the search engine.

Could the OAIS approach work in an internal business context? Can the electronic records be submitted or ‘declared’ to the records management team and stored. The records with long term retention converted into preservable formats. On demand, the records can be made available through a print to PDF facility. The audit trail of access is inherent in the very record produced.

There are several visual depictions of the standard on produced on page 4-1 on, to which I add my ‘scrawled on the back of a napkin’ version to explain how this approach might work:

The benefit, you’d hope, would be ‘future proofed’ electronic documents managed and made available at a reasonable cost over decades. The drawbacks would, perhaps be in the user experience where people are used to the instant search return of a Google query. Now the user would effectively be searching a catalogue of record references and requesting access to the one they want.

The challenge is: would the approach actually work? That is one of the things we are trying to explore with this project.

What and why…

Most of the information now created in the University is ‘born digital’. Staff create documents in file formats that have much shorter life spans than paper. We need to mitigate the risk that these files become unreadable.

Buying an EDRMS is a huge cost for an organisation in terms of licences, implementation and training. Is there a way that electronic records can be effectively managed and preserved without this cost?

We thought: “Can we use our existing infrastructure, with some open source tools, to build a practical, cost-effective solution to the long-term management of our key electronic records?”

This project will build a test environment for converting files into preservable formats. Will they be fit-for-purpose as university records?

The aim of the project is to identify the opportunities and challenges to this approach to electronic records management. Is it a viable alternative? Is it practical for records managers?

Kicking off…

My name is Kit Good, University Records Manager and Freedom of Information Officer at the University of London. I’m lucky enough to work in an institution where the technology department, the University of London Computer Centre (ULCC), has a dedicated Digital Archiving team with a lot of experience in delivering preservation projects around electronic records.

 I’d met with Ed Pinsent, Digital Archivist, several times since I started last year to discuss the challenges around electronic records management. It was back at the start of September when Ed approached me about submitting a bid to the JISC 12/11 Digital Infrastructure Programme.

Ed and Kit

Our bid proposed testing the concept of ‘a simple toolkit of services and software that can plug into a network drive and create preservation copies of core business documents that require permanent preservation’. We were delighted to find out earlier this month that our bid was successful. 

We are hoping that the outcomes of this project will be useful to records managers, the digital archivist community and the Higher Education Sector as a whole. This blog will track the development of the project from its November kick-off to its February close.

More posts to follow…