Tuesday, 8 December 2015
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
45. To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to what extent an all-Island approach is being adopted to the ongoing digitisation of records at the National Archives, in collaboration with the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland; to what extent the National Archives is co-operating with the United Kingdom National Archives in this regard; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43690/15]
In some ways, this follows on from my previous question about the record management policy. There is a high level of co-operation between the cultural institutions, North and South. There is already a UK standard that they are working to in Northern Ireland. It is important that we do not end up with duel standards which would make it much more difficult for such a level of co-operation where there is a new system being developed, and that is what this question is primarily about.
The care and management of electronic records and the preservation of digital material is a challenge in all jurisdictions. Earlier this year, the National Archives joined the Digital Preservation Coalition to prepare itself for the development of a digital preservation strategy and to ensure it adopts appropriate and relevant standards in this area.
The management of Government and other public documents is, properly, a matter for each jurisdiction. The National Archives has a very good working relationship with the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, PRONI.
Both organisations have digitised material for each other, as and when required. A member of the National Archives staff was on the review group for PRONI's digital repository in advance of its operational roll-out. My Department is supportive of this close working relationship.
Regarding digitisation, as I mentioned in my reply to the Deputy's earlier question, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are working with the National Archives on a strategy and associated plan regarding the electronic management and preservation of digital records. A collaborative approach, based on a pilot and phased implementation of electronic record keeping systems, would have benefits across the Civil Service. In developing this project, regard will be had to international experience, including in Northern Ireland. As I said, I was delighted to be in a position to provide the National Archives with a special allocation of €150,000 for 2016 to commence work on the project.
We do not want to end up with a collection of different standards and a long lead time where various Government Departments are operating to different standards and there must be an expensive retrofit. We could easily lose records that were generated on different digital platforms or early generation computer systems, for example, records on floppy disks. It will be difficult and expensive if we do not address it in a timely way. To what extent is the Chief Information Officer dealing with the various Government agencies and Departments to minimise what needs to be done? Are we waiting for a standard to be set before it happens?
I agree that we do not want a collection of different standards. They are engaging with the different Departments. The Deputy's question focuses on co-operation with Northern Ireland. I have met my counterpart in Northern Ireland, Carál Ní Chuilín, and we totally agree on it. Our last North-South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting was held in the Annaghmakerrig centre, which is, uniquely, funded by both the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Arts Council of Ireland. There is good co-operation between the various bodies, such as between the National Museum and the National Gallery and the Ulster Museum. We need to continue with this co-operation.
The UK National Archives is working with the National Archives of Ireland on the digitisation of a number of important records around the Easter Rising, including the digitisation of UK court martial reports for the 1916 leaders. Each file contains the statement of the prisoner to the court martial and, sometimes, last letters to loved ones. The National Archives will make such records available next year and the British National Archives at Kew, PRONI, the National Library of Ireland and the National Records of Scotland are members of the Digital Preservation Coalition, and will work together to develop digital preservation strategies for born digital material.
I am very supportive of any initiatives that would encourage more co-operation with Northern Ireland and the UK, where appropriate. Those are the areas in which we are working together. If the Deputy has any examples in which she feels enhanced co-operation between the relevant archive authorities would be beneficial, I would be happy to examine them.
The Minister has outlined shared heritage and the need for it. We will be accessing information that is stored in different locations and it is a very sustainable approach, whereby people will not have to go and physically retrieve material from an archive. The more of this that can happen, the better and the more accessible it will be.
I would like to mention before I finish that I had been asking routine questions about allocations to the National Library, so I welcome the allocation that has been made as a good investment into the future.
I thank the Deputy for acknowledging that, having raised this issue with me on many occasions. I am very concerned about the protection of the valuable archives and documents that are in the possession of the National Library, so I am pleased to be able to allocate €10 million to it. I was delighted to go to the library yesterday evening to launch its comprehensive 2016 plan, which focuses on the seven signatories. Personal documents and items relating to each individual signatory will be displayed as part of the library's 2016 exhibition. I acknowledge that and wish the staff of the library well. They have a great deal of work ahead of them as they face into this major project. I have seen the difficult working conditions in the basement with which staff have to contend. The Deputy has rightly raised this matter with me on a number of occasions. I am glad that phase 1 is under way. I hope it will bring about a huge improvement for staff.