Electronic Records Research 1997: Resource Materials

Compilation Copyright, Archives & Museum Informatics 1998
Article Copyright, Author

Lezing Dublin
29 Oktober 1996

The Dutch experience in the field of electronic records

Hans Hofman
National Archives of the Netherlands

1. Introduction

It is a little bit strange to look back and realize what has happened in the Netherlands in the field of electronic records since about 5 years. The objective of our project, which started in 1991, was to formulate an adequate policy for this new challenge or even a solution for the preservation of electronic records.

To date there is a program for dealing with the challenge of electronic records, which is supported by our Parliament, and which is carried out on all levels of government. Still there are at this moment however hardly concrete instruments for dealing with electronic records or there is not yet a solution for long-term preservation of electronic records, there isn't even something like an infrastructure within the National Archives. The present situation, though, is in a way much farther then I could have imagined 5 years ago. Especially the cooperation between different levels of government is a real accomplishment, but let me start at the beginning ....

I have been asked to tell you what our experiences in the Netherlands are in the field of electronic records. What I like to present to you is the following:

  1. short history
  2. where are we now: the characteristics of the program called: 'digital longevity'
  3. what direction are we going ?
  4. summary

2. Short history: what has happened ?

Everything started in 1991 when a report of the Court of Audit was published. The main findings of this report were:

  1. that very little was (being) done to anticipate the problems raised by the spread of information technology and its impact on information resources management and record creation;
  2. that very few agencies had adapted their policy;
  3. that generally very few rules had been laid down to ensure the intellectual control of electronic records;
  4. that very little was known about the cost of creating;
  5. that managers are generally unaware of the need to protect records.

These findings were one of the reasons for the National Archives to set up a project on electronic records. Soon other archives participated in this project, namely the municipal archives of Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, the Royal Society of Archivists and the Conference of Archives of lower Authorities. As such the whole archival community was represented in the project.

After the problem definition and the identification of possible strategies the project delivered in at the end of 1994 a report with 10 recommendations.

The most important were:

  1. to develop standard agremeents which regulate the cooperation between government organisations and archives concerning electronic records and closely related to this a clear and consistent terminology;
  2. to formulate the functional requirements for the most effective technical infrastructure for archives in order to be able to preserve and control electronic records;
  3. to investigate the possibilities to leave the custody of the electronic records with archival value with a record creating agency;
  4. to focus on two types of information systems: wordprocessing and databases;
  5. to continue the cooperation between archival institutions in the Netherlands.

Another conclusion of the task force of the archives was that practical experience was necessary. Until that moment most of the results were based on a theoretical approach. The issue of electronic records is however an innovative project, which can not be realized without hands-on experience.

These recommendations were in the beginning of 1995 adopted by the principals of the project, but along with the strongly emphasized conclusion that the issue of electronic records could not be approached or solved without the record creators. They too have a responsibility in this respect. The way of getting the participation of record creating agencies was to approach the Parliament. The idea was that political support would emphasize the importance of the issue.

It resulted in closer cooperation between the ministry of the Interior and the ministry of Education, Culture and Science, represented in particular by the National Archives. They agreed in establishing a program named 'Digital Longevity', which as said, is also part of a more extensive information policy.

The ministry of the Interior, already in 1993 co-sponsoring an important research, carried out by RANDcorporation (which resulted in a report named: 'Preserving the Present'), acknowledged the challenge and adopted the issue of electronic records in its 'Memorandum on information policy in the public sector', called 'Back to the future' and published in 1995. The objective of this policy, which covers the next 4 years, is to improve the relation between government and citizens by making use of the opportunities of information technology.

The policy as expressed in the Memorandum 'Back to the future', includes the program 'digital longevity' and was established as government policy in the summer of 1995.

Each ministry has its own responsibilities: the ministry of the Interior is responsible for the coordination of information management within government and for the accountability of government.

The ministry of Education, Culture and Science is responsible for cultural heritage and as such for governmental records, which are appraised and selected as having enduring historical value. This responsibility is also incorporated in Memorandum about cultural policy for the next 4 years (1997-2000), which this summer has been sent to the Parliament.

Both the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Education, Culture and Science approached the Parliament with a masterplan to meet the challenge of electronic records. This masterplan announced a coherent set of planned activities.

The parliamentary committee met in the beginning of this year and was very interested in this program and expressed its importance for government administration. The Parliament wanted also to be kept informed about the progress of the activities.

3. Characteristics of the Dutch program: 'Digital Longevity'

What is the state of the art at this moment ?

The ultimate goal of the program 'digital longevity' is to guarantee/safeguard the enduring accessibility and availability of electronic records in all their appearances.

Since the parliamentary meeting things gained momentum. An important step forward is the commitment of the coordinating (overarching) organisations of the provinces, the municipalities and the waterboards to the program. They joined the program.

Furthermore a program bureau has been set up, which has as its most important task to coordinate activities, to advise government organisations, to stimulate pilot-projects, to gather and disseminate information and to do everything that could help in achieving the objectives of the program. A programmanager has been appointed.

The different partners are represented in the program-bureau, which consists of (or should in the near future consist of) a program-manager, two consultants (representing both participating ministries), an accountmanager, and a few other persons.

The approach is both top-down and bottom-up. Top-down in the way that the program intends to coordinate and stimulate things, initiatives etc. and bottom-up because the real work is done within and by agencies, archives and other and relevant organisations involved.

The program-bureau represents the top-down approach and should achieve the objectives of the program by:

  1. promoting and stimulating initiatives focused at the achievement of enduring information management
  2. increasing awareness with senior managers
  3. formulating common requirements for adequate record keeping and record keeping systems
  4. inventorying relevant developments in the field of records- and information management
  5. coordinating all these activities and pilot-projects
  6. sponsoring research
  7. consulting agencies, government organisations etc
  8. disseminating information about these subjects among participants and
  9. promoting cooperation between administrations and archives.

4. Activities and next steps

What will be the next steps in carrying out the program ? The program started in the Spring of this year and will as is expected, last 4-6 years.

We distinguish 3 levels within government organisations, which are considered as main target-groups:

  1. the top-level of bureaucracy, which is considered as decisionmaking, like the secretary-general (the highest official in a Dutch ministry) one of the activities is to increase awareness among these officials. This should invite them to sign a declaration of intent and so acquire their commitment. This should lead eventually to adequate funding.

  2. senior managers: the same approach is valid for executive senior managers, who actually are responsible for the accomplishment of government tasks.

  3. the lowest level is the operational, where the records are created. At this level pilot-projects will be set up.

In trying to achieve the goals of the program there are actually 4 or 5 main fields of activities:

  1. increasing awareness.
  2. initiating and stimulating pilot-projects which should test new ideas, new instruments and eventually produce concrete results.
  3. creating a generic framework of regulations, procedures, standards, agreements etc. This framework should offer the necessary (pre)conditions for proper record keeping and adequate electronic records.
  4. sponsoring research on common issues, the results of which could be applied or tested in practice.
  5. training and education.

ad 1. Awareness

The management of processes within government organisations influenced by IT will change very radically the next few years. That will also concern record creation and record keeping. Despite all these changes however the record keeping function (including an archival function) will remain necessary and survive.

Nevertheless it will be necessary to inform the different players involved in this field, especially senior managers, about the possible consequences and opportunities and how to deal with them. Several instruments will be used here like an information bulletin, an Internet-site and the publication of articles etc. in papers and periodicals.

Finally the program bureau will organize seminars for the different target-groups, something like a road-show etc.

The idea is not to increase awareness by convincing people in using a lot of arguments or by regulations, but by making them aware of their interest(s) in new methods.

ad 2. pilot-projects

The second field of activities is the promotion and support of pilot-projects. An interesting and important development in this respect is that within several agencies and organisations plans are developed to modernize the administration in using IT, such as implementing workflow systems, scanning documents, introducing e-mail etc. Such projects mostly have as objectives to reduce the mass of paper by digitizing, to get better control of the paper flow within an organisation (and between organisations) and to simplify workprocesses. Examples are for instance:

Another category of pilot-projects tries to inventory within organisations, such the provincial administrations, which electronic records there are, how they are managed, whether or not they are having archival value and if this is the case, what shoudl be done in order to prepare a proper transfer in due time.

A third category are projects focusing on the development of a technical infrastructure. Especially archival institutions are involved here, like the National Archives and the municipal archives of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Actually within the program 'digital longevity' it is the joint contribution of the archival community.

The technical infrastructure is needed to enable archival institutions and governmental organisations to preserve and manage electronic records and to keep them accessible and available through time despite rapid developments in information technology.

All these pilots have in common that they focus on information management and record keeping, that they are funded by the agency involved, which is also responsible for the success.

ad 3. establishing a generic framework

An important problem, as indicated by the General Court of Audit 5 years ago, is the absence of adequate regulations and procedures for electronic records. So one of the goals of the program is to establish such a framework, consisting of organisational, legal, informational, archival and technological measures.

One of the promises made to the Parliament in the beginning of this year was the draft of a testset of rules for electronic records as soon as possible (which meant before the summer of 1996). This draft regulation should be based on the new Archives Act of 1995 and is focusing on the accessibility and the enduring preservation of electronic records.

Part of the rules are also standards for storage-formats for electronic records. A first test-set of rules is available now together with an explanation, which also includes a short terminology. It will be tested in practice, that means within an agency, to see whether or not they are feasible, complete, adequate, understandable etc. In making these rules several existing foreign regulations in this field, such as Danish, Australian, English, Canadian and American guidelines, were consulted. A working group, consisting of representatives of the agencies, archives and coordinating organisations, will be established in order to support this practical test. In this respect also a standard agreement will be developed. Because of the unknown and new aspects it seems useful and even necessary for agencies and archives to make arrangements for electronic records with archival value in order to guarantee their accessibility, preservation, and transfer to the archives. Issues to be settled are: the custodial responsibility, the transferdate, the storage-format, the objects to be transferred, the accompanying and necessary documentation etc.

4. Research

The fourth field of activities is sponsoring research. There are at this moment 2 projects:

Keeping always in mind that sometimes managers or politicians have not interest in good information or record keeping.

Other issues for research are:

Finally a fifth issue or field of activitiy that should be overlooked is training and education. All these new developments around record keeping demand not only new approaches and a lot of information exchange, but also courses and training facilities. Together with educational institutions such as the Dutch Archives School, curricula and training programs will be set up.

International cooperation

Before finishing my presentation I like to touch the aspect of international cooperation. The emergence of electronic records is not only occurring in the Netherlands or Ireland, but all over Europe and in the world, so there is a firm basis for international cooperation. The European Union and the International Council on Archives (ICA) offer useful platforms for it. Already in 1994 a report was published with recommendations for cooperation in Europe. Since that year cooperation, if there is any, has been limited to bilateral contacts and a few meetings of experts. There is still a lot of work to do in this field. The next thing to happen is the DLM-Forum in december this year in Brussels. It should result in concrete recommendations foor cooperation.

Anyway there are opportunities. The librarian community is much further in this respect and are (and that is important) partly working in the same field. In the Netherlands thye national Archives are in regular contact with the Royal Library for instance to identify common issues and problems. Looking at the complexity and the multidisciplinjary and innovative character of the issue of electronic records cooperation beyond the boundaries of the archives is not only unavoidable, but it also offers opportunities for archives to reposition themselves.

5. Summary

Summarizing the most important aspects of the Dutch experience on electronic records, I like to emphasize the following:

Although there is a firm basis for success, there are still major challenges to be met:

  1. firstly there is still little awareness among senior management and even if there is some acknowledgement of the issues at stake, managers tend to minimalize these. Yet these managers are the main source for the funding of the program.
  2. the funding of the program is very weak and depends at this moment upon the limited resources made available by the Ministry of Interior and the National Archives.
  3. last but not least there exists a fairly big gap in knowledge, ecpertise etc. between a vanguard of people already involved in the field of electronic records during several years and other people, especially on the oprational level within government organisations and the archives. Training and education will become ever more necessary.

Accomplishments in a positive sense at this moment are however:

  1. after 4 years the broadening of the participation from a merely archival project towards a governmentwide program, supported by the Parliament and the coordinating organisations of the different levels of government. I think that this is a major achievement, which could (or should) be the basis for success.
  2. the coordination of activities will provide the program with the necessary knowledge, practical experiences, expertise, but will also create the synergetic energy to make it succesful.

Important is and will be the role of the program-bureau: this is facilitating, supporting and intermediary instead of steering. Furthermore the real work has to/should be done by the organisations who have (or at least should have) interest in the results of the program, such as record creating agencies, archives etc.

Nevertheless the real work is still ahead !


The focus during this first year will be on increasing awareness among senior management of government organisations. That will be done by organizing seminars or holding presentations, something like a road-show, seminars about the goals of the program. The point is that if these high officials are prepared to attend a meeting this meeting need to be awfully good and convincing.

That could only be profitable if senior management agrees about the goals of the program and believes it is also in its own interest to support it.


One interesting and important development is that within several agencies and organisations plans are developed to modernize the administration using IT, such as applying workflow-programs, imaging of documents, introducing e-mail etc. At the same time departments intend to set up new procedures for the use of these new instruments. That is a very good moment for intervening, certainly because there is a desperate need for information and consultancy how to do this.

A second activity is to coordinate all the initiatives within agencies and ministries concerning the modernization of the administration especially record keeping and records management. If possible they are incorporated into the program as pilots-projects. There are at this moment about ... plans in this field. It is the intention to cluster these plans and see if they can help in defining requirements for record keeping systems. The idea of pilot-projects is that the agency has to be committed to the results of a project.

technical infrastructure Closely related to these activities around an adequate record keeping system is the development of a control system for the preservation and management of electronic records. This is in fact a technical infrastructure which can deal with the rapid developments of information technology.

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