I attended an interesting meeting on Friday with members of the digital continuity/digital preservation team from The National Archives. Also there were two representatives from other parts of the public sector: the police, and the Ministry of Defence. And, if I may jump to a conclusion before I’ve laid out any of the issues, the level of discussion showed that we all have different priorities and needs, so even if we three were truly representative and others will all fit one of our models, it shows that a one-size-fits-all solution is going to be tricky!!

To move on to the areas covered though: this meeting followed an earlier session when TNA colleagues talked through work they were doing to capture websites. This was interesting (and deserves wider publicity – although from their quoted statistics of over a billion visits [think I heard that right?] – people are managing to find the archive!) – but as I was a member of the original working group, the mechanics were not new to me – I was more interested to hear about new initiatives, in particular what they might be doing to capture social media.  Hence meeting number two.

Use of social media by government departments has grown dramatically over the last 3-4 years. Main channels the National Archive team talked about here were flickr, youtube and twitter, and it was telling how much we also need to investigate facebook – as although this could be tricky, if it is being used for publishing original content, then surely it should be considered?

A diversion here to talk about the role of TNA in preserving content.  This activity is governed by the 1958 Public Records Act – which although it has been amended many times, webby people will already recognise it is unlikely to refer specifically to social media! Their role is described on their website as “ensuring the survival of the nation’s records” – and while this takes the form of advice and guidance, it also includes the very practical job of storing government information. The Act has led to a very clear process around identifying and storing material produced on paper, and this as extended reasonably smoothly to protocols covering the same sort of content as civil servants produce more and more ‘born digital’ submissions, reports, email exchanges and policies. However, there has been no general inter-departmental discussion as to how we might ensure that content such as photos, short films, and digital engagement activities such as webchats with ministers or twitter Q&A sessions is captured – and this of course would need to include a debate on what was important – what might future social historians or political commentators find valuable?

A simplistic answer might be that any of this material that is published on central websites, or stored in official records management systems, is already being captured – and that should do.  But I’m pretty sure that this would not capture the diverse richness of content that is being produced and engagement that is taking place in the digital environment across government.

In asking the question as to what the academics of the future might find interesting, I think we already have some of the answers – the colleague from the police mentioned that there are already some thoughtful and analytical reports as to how the police are evolving the way they are using social media and the impact it is having. Nb. There are many hundreds of twitter accounts associated with police forces now – real people, but also a handful of dogs, a helicopter and even a horse!

To start with the ‘simple’ examples. Flickr, Youtube and twitter. Unfortunately, early efforts to capture departments outputs have not really been successful – changes in interface, problems with links, volume of output – and inconsistencies or alternatives – did you know for example that the MOD have their own website with thousands of photos?! TNA have commissioned research, but I wonder if in the meantime there are some relatively simple, non-technical solutions?

One issue that hit all departments was the question of what could/should happen to all content published by government accounts in social media if there was to be a change of administration at the general election. Twitter wasn’t considered an issue – Departments continued. If they changed their name, or were re-shaped, this could be reflected in the account, and as it is clearly a continuing conversation, there was no concern about ‘deleting’old content. After all, have you tried searching for twitter comments that are over a year old? TNA are aware of the project that the Library of Congress is engaged in, working with the entire twitter archive – but it is not thought that this will yield results for some time.

The two channels that did cause internal debate though were flickr and youtube. As they reflect current activity, what most departments did (including my own) was to remove content which featured members of the previous administration.

This means however, that if you want an image of a particular minister in a remembered situation – eg meeting another head of state, or visiting your area, or to view a video of a specific individual speaking, then you wont find it attached to the official account. I wonder if this is an occasion where we might use the name and authority of the National Archives to set up accounts in those  channels, into which departments could transfer selected content? Thus all meta data, captions, permissions etc would remain, and they would be findable within those vast repositories, but they would be clearly identifiable as archive material. I’d be interested to hear others views on this, as it would not be resource neutral – in people time rather than straightforward cash terms, but it would mean access to this material wasn’t lost.

All of us asked questions about facebook. Departments are using it more and more to publish original content, carry out real engagement with communities of interest, and it appears to be forming an ever growing part of official communication. No solutions to the archiving question were apparent – but it struck me that the introduction of facebook timeline implies that they are interested in making it as easy as possible to see a person’s whole life – and this could relatively easily be extended to an organisation. Again, not resource neutral, but possibly a good way to see a timeline of highlights, significant milestones and changing business activities? Perhaps something to work with facebook to explore?

Conclusions? I dont have the specifics on what will actually be done, but it would be interesting to hear other peoples thoughts – and perhaps examples of what people in other countries are doing? Directions I can see include working with channel owners, not trying to establish hugely costly solutions to capture everything, rather introducing the  role of people in government departments acting as curators. When it is neither practical or even possible to store absolutely everything, someone needs to make a judgement on what it is valuable to keep – digital librarians??