In 2018, The National Archives launched the first cohort of Bridging the Digital Gap (BDG) trainees. The traineeship was developed to address a skills gap in the sector, but also to contribute to something more ambitious: the vision of a disruptive digital archive. Established archival practices have naturally been shaped by the physical records they aim to protect. Rather than digitally simulating these practices, The National Archives aims to “fundamentally rethink archival practice from first principles”. They intend to create a second-generation digital archive that is “digital by instinct and design”.
BDG trainees are effectively an embodiment of this disruption. None of the trainees are archivists; we have no practices to unpick. We all entered archives (some for the first time) with diverse backgrounds but two things in common: digital experience and an interest in archives. Everything we learn is built on the foundation that digital preservation is an essential archival practice. Even if an archive only holds physical records, the archivists are using computers to catalogue, engage users, and correspond with depositors. Whether you can read this blog in years to come will essentially depend on digital preservation (including generous appraisal). We are all, to some degree, digital archivists. But Bridging the Digital Gap doesn’t just draw connections between archives and digital preservation. It makes archiving instinctively digital; it collapses the gap by design.
In October 2019, the second group of BDG trainees entered the archives. Four in London and four in Yorkshire. I am fortunate to count myself amongst this cohort, and I am doubly fortunate to be seconded to York. (How can you fail to feel blessed when your commute involves riverside cycles or medieval walls?) I studied English Literature at the University of York a few years ago and will always associate York with that period of growth. But Yorkshire was never just a backdrop to an academic experience. It unlocked it. Knotty paragraphs unravelled as I ran along the Ouse. Ideas landed on long rambles through fields. Dissertation panic dissolved in a euphoric cycle down Rosedale’s Chimney Bank and an agonising ride (on ancient/broken bikes) between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay. I dived into Yorkshire and surfaced revived. I learnt that often all we need is an alternative perspective, an opportunity to engage with obstacles differently.
We are typically encouraged to conceive of technology (and most other things) in a binary and oppositional way. Paperbacks versus Paperwhite. Letters versus emails. Man versus robots. And yet, Kindle didn’t eradicate books, nor did Audible. They just enabled more people to read. Likewise, digital archives don’t threaten physical ones, they just consolidate their content and extend their reach. Technology, when used effectively, is exceptionally good at improving access: a fundamental archival principle.
Similarly, for the archive sector to be open and adaptable, it requires alternative access points. A master’s qualification might unlock entry for one person, whilst creating an insurmountable barrier for another. I glimpsed into the archival world when researching the Hogarth Press. But I couldn’t find a way into the workforce. I couldn’t afford a master’s in Archives and Record Management and I couldn’t see another way in. I started working as a freelance writer and learnt about SEO. I built rudimentary websites and tried teaching myself code. I stopped being fearful of digital technology (I am an old soul millennial) and recognised its potential. Two years later, I encountered this traineeship, and everything connected. I crossed the bridge into archives, and I brought my digital experience with me.
In the following posts, I will be recounting my time as a BDG trainee and ruminating on the realm of digital archives. I’ll release my posts on Thursdays, for the sake of alliteration, but not every week. (Adaptability being a core principle of digital preservation!) For now, I want to thank York for having me and The National Archives for reconnecting us. Of the many things I’ve learnt on this traineeship, one thing underlies them all: access and connection are vital. I am so grateful for being granted both.
Frances Bell @inawildflower
 The terms digital preservation and digital stewardship tend to be used interchangeably. ‘Digital stewardship’ draws from the environmental movement to embed the idea that archives collect, hold, and evolve records for future generations. I am using ‘digital preservation’ because the term has more widespread use. However, it is worth keeping the values of stewardship in mind when discussing this practice.