Workbook on Digital Private Papers > Working with record creators > Surveying collections

Surveying collections


An important first step when weighing up the potential acquisition of any archive is to establish a broad overview of the archive's content and context. This is particularly important in relation to digital and hybrid personal archives, and Paradigm's investigation into the structure of politicians' papers informed the production of a records survey for this purpose.

Records surveys are traditionally seen as the preserve of institutional records managers, who have some degree of control over the creation and management of records during their active lifetime. In an environment of hybrid record keeping these surveys typically seek to gather information on: the types of record series maintained in an organisation or department; the functions that give rise to these record series; the creators and users of the records; their frequency of use; the length of time for which the records are required for specific purposes; responsibility for maintaining the records; the rate of accruals; legislative requirements for keeping the records; access and security issues; confidentiality and sensitivity of content; and the extent and format of both hard copy and digital components of the record keeping system. The results of records surveys are used to gain control of records, bring them into a managed environment, identify active, semi-current and inactive records, and establish filing schemes and retention schedules.

The digital environment requires archivists working in collecting institutions to take a much more pro-active approach towards collecting and to become involved with donors and depositors at a much earlier stage in the records lifecycle. Records surveys are therefore likely to form an important tool of the digital archivist or curator, and may even influence the record keeping practices of archive creators - especially if the repository chooses to take the post-custodial or snapshot accessions approaches to collecting, which involve fostering an ongoing relationship between repository and donor/depositor over a period of time.

In the records management field, surveys are either carried out by physical observation and examination, or by questionnaire. In the world of personal record keeping, a combination of both approaches is probably most effective. The Paradigm archivists therefore sent their survey questionnaire out in advance, in order to prompt the project participants to start thinking about their record keeping practices. This was followed up by a visit from one of the project archivists, during which the detailed survey was carried out. On-site visits enable the record creators to ask any questions arising from the questionnaire; they also afford the archivist an opportunity to augment the survey information by interviewing the record creator(s), obtaining job or role descriptions (where records are created in an organised context like a politician's constituency office) and any existing file schemes or indexes which are maintained, as well as any other contextual information which might enhance understanding of the archive.

Paradigm also explored some other useful ways of gathering information about the digital components of a personal archive for survey purposes - principally by creating screenshots and capturing directory structures; both of these methods can provide important information about the original order and record keeping practices of the donor/depositor. They also help the archivist to identify records series of historical significance. Paradigm tested a number of tools for capturing directory structures (two are explored in Chapter 04 Appraisal and disposal), which provide a useful means of extracting information about an aggregation of folders and files. The project also explored the potential of tools developed for the digital forensics community for the secure acquisition and investigation of digital materials. There are several open source and proprietary tools available that merit more detailed investigation by the archival community.

The records survey

The Paradigm records survey (see Appendix C), sent out to politicians' office staff, probably bears a closer resemblance to a typical institutional records survey than the kind of questionnaire that might be produced for more obviously 'personal' archives (which are largely the product of a single individual). However, it could be adapted for different types of archive creator. It seeks information on: specific records series which are likely to be of historical interest; the content of the records; the structure of the archive; the functions and roles of office staff and record creators; rights and responsibilities in relation to the records; and the technical environment in which record creators are working.

How does the records survey assist the digital archivist?

Much of the information provided in the records survey is valuable for the purpose of administering and managing the archive once it reaches the repository, and for the creation of preservation and descriptive metadata. Specific ways in which a records survey can be useful for archivists responsible for personal digital archives include the following:

The archivist can augment all of this survey information through interviews and onsite visits to donors/depositors.

Creating screenshots

When surveying digital archives at the premises of donors/depositors it can be helpful for the archivist to create screenshots which can be saved or printed. These can be created using nothing more than the computer of the creator or with more sophisticated screenshot tools. Screenshots can also be used to capture system information about the creator's computing environment and to provide a record of the original directory structures used to manage email and other documents. This allows the archivist to identify important record series and folders, and to gain an insight into the creator's record keeping practices and the original order of the records. Screenshots are also useful in the transfer and accessioning process: they provide a visual aid for the donor/depositor, and allow the archivist and record creator to come to a clear agreement about the records to be selected for accession. Tips on creating screenshots.

Screenshot tools

Screenshots via the Print Screen key are limited. The image is constrained to the size of the screen, which may not include the whole directory tree, and it is not possible to target specific windows or regions of the screen. More sophisticated screenshot tools that can capture specific windows and scrolling windows are available and could form a useful part of the archivist's survey/accessioning toolkit.

Capturing directory structures

Capturing the directory structure of an archive creates a record of the original order of digital materials accessioned by the repository, which can be used for the same purposes as screenshots; however, this has the added advantage of generating a single text file containing all the directory information, which can then be searched. Tips on capturing directory structures.