National Archives keeper on how AI and digital is changing the organisation's work
Jeff James discusses the impact of technology on the art of archiving
The annual perm secs round-up published by PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World sees Whitehall's senior leaders open up on their biggest challenges and opportunities - as well as their thoughts on how best to mark the festive season. Here National Archives chief executive and keeper Jeff James opens up on the organisation's plan to establish a "disruptive digital archive".
What was your highlight of 2018?
In September, we held our very first ‘Archives and AI’ digital symposium, in collaboration with the Forum of National Archivists, a section of the International Council on Archives. Artificial intelligence presents almost limitless potential to archivists. Machine learning technologies provide archives with radical new capabilities and possibilities, and the challenges of appraisal, selection and sensitivity review of born-digital records might only be solvable through AI. The event brought together experts and archivists from around the world to discuss these very exciting possibilities.
What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2018?
This year has seen continuing financial pressures across local government, which has increasingly put pressure on archives services. As leaders of the archives sector, we are committed to supporting our archivists during periods of uncertainty and keeping people motivated and positive about the great work they are doing. The UK government strategic vision Archives Unlocked has brought the sector a renewed focus and raised its profile in terms of realising the unique role archives play in ensuring corporate accountability and transparency in public life.
What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?
Our digital strategy sets out how decades of archival practice needs to fundamentally change. Our aim is to create the “disruptive” digital archive. Archives need to develop extraordinary capabilities to ensure that digital records can be kept, and used, by everyone. In many ways, the innovative work our Legislation.gov.uk service is currently undertaking in the creation of an accessible online platform to host retained EU legislation is just one example of the scale of some of the challenges.
Which celebrity or historical figure would you choose to turn on the Christmas lights in your town, and why?
I live close to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire so it would have to be Nan Ino Cooper, 10th Baroness Lucas and 6th Lady Dingwall. She opened the doors of Wrest Park as the first country house hospital for injured servicemen in 1914. As we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War in November, I can’t think of a more appropriate figure.
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