Dáil debates

Thursday, 13 October 2005

4:00 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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Question 9: To ask the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism his views on establishing a single national repository to store archival records that have been generated and stored electronically given that such records will require updating in line with both software and hardware system upgrades; the way in which he will increase the storage space available for archival material; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28307/05]

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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Question 32: To ask the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if an assessment has been made or will be made of the extent to which archival material is stored electronically throughout the State and in public bodies; the annual cost or estimated annual cost of software and hardware upgrades necessary to stay in line with information technology industry advancements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28306/05]

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Minister, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Kerry South, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 32 together.

The records of all public bodies are increasingly being created and maintained electronically. The long-term preservation of departmental records in electronic form is the responsibility of the National Archives. However, in the short term each Department, office or court is responsible for the preservation of its own electronic records, that is, until such time as they are obliged to lodge them with the National Archives in accordance with the relevant legislation. All other public bodies are responsible for both the short-term and the long-term preservation of their own electronic records.

The National Archives has in the past undertaken surveys by questionnaire to assess the extent of record-generating computer systems across the Civil Service and the types of records being generated by such systems. It is evident there are large quantities of such records. More recently, pilot surveys have been undertaken focusing on specific specialised systems. Systems surveyed have included those of the Revenue Commissioners and the Land Registry. The National Archives has also undertaken a number of pilot projects to establish how certain types of electronic records might be preserved over time.

I am responsible for the State papers transferred to the National Archives. The work of the body is set out in the National Archives Act 1986. The Act requires the National Archives to acquire, preserve, restore and display departmental records and to make these available to the public. Section 14 of the Act empowers the Minister to approve a place, other than the National Archives itself, to receive deposits of specified departmental records and for this to constitute a transfer to the National Archives. I do not propose to remove all archival material held throughout the country by different bodies into the care of the National Archives.

The body is considering how best to meet its responsibility to effect the permanent preservation of digital archives. In many cases, long-term preservation may best be effected by transfer to the National Archives. In other cases, particularly where specialised, purpose designed systems are concerned, it may be wiser, safer and more economically sensible to preserve digital records within the agencies in which they were created. Should that option be pursued, the National Archives would have to be satisfied that it would enable it to meet its responsibilities regarding the preservation and access by systematic monitoring, inspection and reporting. Typically, the National Archives website would become a hub through which such records would be made available for public inspection.

The problems involved in storing electronic records are different from those connected with the storage of paper files. Large electronic record keeping systems require only a small fraction of the space required to hold the paper records. Electronic record keeping requires ongoing expenditure on hardware, software and human expertise on a scale that has no parallel in the world of paper records. Stored in the right conditions, paper is inherently durable whereas there is no proven long-term storage medium for the preservation of records in digital form. To guard against loss of records due to the physical deterioration of the media on which they are stored, regular and continuing migration of such records to new storage media is required. Records created in proprietary software systems will have to be carried forward through later versions of these proprietary formats or, if practicable, exported to non-proprietary formats for permanent preservation. Maintaining functionality of systems over time in these circumstances will be difficult to guarantee and potentially costly to implement. Migration of records to new systems and formats will have to be undertaken in ways that will ensure their authenticity, reliability and evidential value over time.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I thank the Minister. This is quite a challenge for the State as a large number of paper records exists. While I accept records are archived primarily for their legal admissibility, they have a significant heritage value. Professionals with both archiving and information technology skills are needed to decide which records are appropriate to maintain and a significant number of people with these skills would be required to service each State body. A perfect system is not available because the technology involved is being progressed all the time. Britain has instituted a location where records are stored, upgraded and maintained and it is a cost effective way to archive.

The Minister replied to a parliamentary question I tabled on Tuesday on this topic in the context of the decentralisation programme, which poses additional challenges. He stated a risk analysis is under way. Who is carrying it out? When is it likely to conclude? He also stated an individual had been appointed to the National Archives to work on the issue of best practice in this regard but the individual had resigned recently. Is one person sufficient to do this work? When will that report be available?

Computer systems have been revolutionised, even over the past 30 years, and the notion of storing large spools of records is laughable. The Minister must consider this in deciding in what format material should be maintained and the number of records to be held, which should be minimised so that only the most important records are archived. We are all guilty of information overload and, for example, many of us keep e-mails, which are not relevant. However, this is not only an IT issue but an archival issue in terms of which records are appropriate to archive. Will the Minister consider using one location for archiving? Given the experience in the local authority system where archivists are employed intermittently or are sometimes shared among several local authorities, there are not sufficient people with the necessary skills available to decide what needs to be stored and how it should be stored throughout the country.

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Minister, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Kerry South, Fianna Fail)
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Whatever combination of solutions is devised, it is essential that both knowledge and physical resources are developed to ensure records and other cultural objects in digital form can be preserved. As the Deputy stated, as a first step in a more substantial programme of work, I appointed a member of staff of the National Archives to examine the issue of electronic records. Progress has been made in the development of an electronic records unit within the National Archives. The development of strategies for the long-term preservation of electronic records covered by the National Archives Act 1986 and for drafting guidelines for the management of electronic records to ensure their survival as archives continues. Unfortunately that programme has been interrupted by the resignation of the recently appointed specialist member of staff. We are actively engaged with the Public Appointments Commission to have this specialist vacancy filled. I hope we can do so in the short to medium term.

Once the vacancy has been filled work will recommence on developing a strategy for the long-term preservation of electronic records. Further initiatives to increase the skill base in the National Archives are being pursued to ensure that all Departments and Government offices will be provided with best practice guidelines for the maintenance of electronic records.

It is difficult to give an estimate of the timescale to Deputy Murphy nor can I provide a meaningful estimate of the cost involved. The current premises at Bishop Street are entirely inadequate. A new premises is required, whether refurbished at that location or moved to another location, such as Parnell Square. These matters are being studied at present.

There is a vibrant chair and board of the National Archives. Over the past few years various proposals have been made and the board has done an excellent job beneath the radar. We are conscious of the importance of the material concerned and anxious to ensure the survival of records in whatever format and that the format survives the test of time.