Knowledge Management
May 7, 2012

Preserving Ontario’s digital memory

Digital records are pervasive in all aspects of our personal and working life. The creation of digital information is exploding at an exponential rate. The experience of the Ontario Public Service (OPS) with digital records mirrors what is happening in other jurisdictions. Various attempts are being made to mitigate risks within the OPS environment. This includes the important work being done at the Archives of Ontario in the area of long-term digital preservation.

The Archives has been collecting, preserving and providing access to the province’s history since 1903. Our multi-faceted collections include Ontario government records, genealogical records, photographs, architectural drawings, film and sound recordings, and the Government of Ontario Art Collection. Our holdings date back to 1729, and grow by 15,000 cubic feet per year.

As the guardian of Ontario’s documentary memory, the Archives is constantly striving to bring the past alive by promoting excellence in recordkeeping and custodial practices, and is taking great strides in meeting the challenges of preserving and managing archival digital records.

Our digital records program, coordinated by two employees, has existed since 1997 and a digital preservation strategy was initiated in 2007 that identifies how to move forward on the long-term preservation of digital records.

We have initiated a project to build a trusted digital repository called RADR (Repository of Archival Digital Records) that will properly safeguard these records and ensure they remain accessible over the long-term. As a result of a pilot project involving the records of the Ipperwash Inquiry, the Archives is one of the first in Canada to make our “born-digital” archival records available to researchers on the web. With this milestone, we are now able to provide “anywhere, anytime” access to our archival digital holdings. We are also working with stakeholders to share our expertise and experiences in this field.

Preserving authenticity
Digital preservation encompasses a broad range of activities designed to extend the usable life of machine-readable computer files and protect them from media failure, physical loss and obsolescence. There are many strategies available to mitigate against these threats but migration and emulation have emerged as the leading techniques currently used by archival institutions. Migration involves copying or converting data from one technology to another while emulation combines software and hardware to allow programs designed for a particular outdated environment to operate in a newer environment.  

The Archives of Ontario realized that our existing digital records repository required more sufficient long-term preservation functionality and a better means to make these records available to researchers. These observations were the motivation for RADR and the Ipperwash Inquiry pilot project.

The goals of RADR are to preserve the authenticity, accessibility and readability of Ontario archival digital records, free from dependence on any specific hardware or software; to provide the Ontario government and the public with 24/7 online access to archival digital records in our collection; and to support the best-practice management of digital information in the Ontario government.

The main components of RADR include the repository infrastructure, which will be compliant with an International Standards Organization standard and associated policies and procedures, and the creation of a research lab to devise and implement practical solutions for digital preservation issues.

A full business case has been completed and the necessary functional requirements have been defined. Current work includes developing the system architecture and preparing for the eventual release of a request-for-proposal to acquire a commercial solution.

The Ipperwash Inquiry project was initiated in response to an Ontario Auditor General Report and increased user demand for access to these types of records. The digital records of the inquiry included a website, a database of scanned documents and various material found in exhibit files.

Project milestones achieved included creating a shared folder for archivists to complete the processing of the records; developing a model for internal access to allow the searching of restricted records; the completion of processing guidelines; numerous changes proposed to existing policies and procedures to incorporate digital records issues and processes; and the creation of the Electronic Records Online area of the Archives of Ontario website.

The digital preservation challenge is too large and complex for one institution to tackle on its own. To address this, the Archives actively reached out to its partners to explore new avenues of cooperation and information sharing.

We currently serve as the secretariat for the National Digital Preservation Working Group (founded by us in 2008), which consists of representatives from other provincial and territorial archives to discuss digital preservation issues. A partnership has been developed with the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto to host student internships and play an advisory role in their Digital Curation Institute. Reciprocal visits have been made with Library and Archives Canada to discuss possible collaboration in this area.

In addition, we have recently hosted international delegations from China, Japan and Malaysia to discuss our initiatives and exchange information.The implementation of RADR and recommendations from the pilot project will further cement the current leadership role that the Archives of Ontario plays in Canada in addressing digital preservation issues. Our continued outreach with the archival community and key partnerships with valued stakeholders will only further reinforce our status as a trusted centre of excellence in this field.


Miriam McTiernan is the Archivist of Ontario and former Chief Executive Officer of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario (www.ontario.ca/archives).

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