The National Archives of Australia holds a fascinating array of material, one of the most important collections of documentary heritage in the country. The Archives is the official repository for Australian Government records and the personal papers of people with close links to the Commonwealth, such as federal politicians and senior public servants.
The Archives preserves valuable records created by Commonwealth departments and makes them accessible to present and future generations. Nationally, it stores millions of paper based and electronic records, mainly files, but also film and photographs, magnetic tapes, maps and artefacts. Headquartered in Canberra with offices and reading rooms also in four state capitals, the Archives employs 465 staff and has a budget of approximately $75 million per annum.
The National Archives decided very early that any software developed for digital preservation should
be released under an open source license. Open source software offers the prospect of collaborating
with other interested parties without barriers to engagement and helps in getting the software in front
of the largest possible audience. Open source development allows our small team to create large
software projects by building on top of existing open source tools.
- Michael Carden, Assistant Director, Operations Innovation, National Archives of Australia
The National Archives selects, maintains and preserves Australian Government records of enduring value, and makes them available for public access under the conditions specified within the Archives Act 1983. In a rapidly changing digital environment, meeting this responsibility is a real challenge. Hardware and software obsolescence requires the National Archives to intervene actively to maintain digital records and provide access to them long after their creation. Consider the type and volume of records government agencies create in their day-to-day operations. The Department of Finance and Administration, for example, generates numerous records each day, dealing with Budget matters, financial initiatives and reviews, and financial advice and training for all of government. Some of these records are paper but many are digital. The digital records comprise many formats: word-processing documents, spreadsheets, emails, images and so on. Some 18 Australian Government departments, with responsibility for 187 agencies, generate a vast number of records each year. Generally, no more than 5 per cent of records are deemed to be of archival significance and transferred to the National Archives for safekeeping and future access. That 5 per cent of records will eventually comprise more digital records than paper records
Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.
Linux, Java, Xena, DPR.
Digital records are always mediated by the computing platforms and software applications used to create or render them. Over time, computing hardware has undergone rapid evolution while operating systems and software applications have seen similar high rates of change. These changes, coupled with the relative fragility of digital storage media, pose a threat to the long term access to digital records. Research commenced by NAA in 2000 concluded that the preservation of digital records should focus on the performance of a record over time rather than attempting to preserve the specific combination of source data and technology that represent a record at its creation.
The research team looked at the factors affecting the creation of a performance of a record and concluded that a means was required to move digital records away from specific technologies and to represent digital records in openly specified formats based on freely available standards. This gave rise to the development of the XML Electronic Normalising for Archives (Xena) digital preservation software. The Xena software is designed to determine the file formats of digital records and to perform conversions into appropriate open formats while adding some preservation metadata.
With Xena at the core of the digital preservation process, the NAA then developed a sophisticated tool to manage a digital preservation workflow calling on Xena and other tools while collecting an audit trail of the process. This tool is known as the Digital Preservation Recorder (DPR) and like Xena, DPR is open source software freely available for download. With the key software tools in place, the team constructed a computer server and storage facility to host a prototype digital archive and that facility has been in daily use since 2006, preserving the digital records of Australia’n Government