Record DNA: Reconceptualising the life of digital records as the future evidence base

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Engineering and Environment


Scholars and members of the public rely on records (eg birth/death certificates, census and court records) as the evidence base for research. So too do those making policy or conducting inquiries. All require access to original, authentic records. They do so in the understanding that archivists and records managers have a base of theory and practice that enables the retention of records that are original, authentic, trusted, within context and useable. However, a major issue facing society is the extent to which the digital evidence base is at risk because the concept of the digital record has been challenged.

In the digital world the container, i.e. the file, is no longer the record. The record comprises the granular objects that are scattered yet linked, e.g. chains of emails or tweets. Traditional ideas about a record, that it is fixed and unique, are under threat, replaced by uncertainty, mutability and the notion of liquidity. However, records have a 'DNA string', a term coined by Lomas and McLeod to represent the idea that records comprise individual elements, from the body of information and metadata through to software and hardware components, that link globally to create the presentation of a complete object. This DNA can change, degrade or break over time, or it can be maintained via migrations or combined and strengthened through mashups, linked data and blockchain technologies. In the digital world "the record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital."1 Concepts commonly accepted as defining a fixed original record are conflicted in the digital world where systems automatically generate multiple copies of documents (e.g. copies of emails held by both sender and recipient) across networks.

Other complex issues surround the interrogation of evidential records. For example in the Hillsborough inquiry it was possible to review typescript statements and determine whether or not there had been alterations. This can be far harder with digital statements where many copies may exist with unclear authorship or the definitive original may disappear into a seemingly infinite cyberspace. If there are no 'original' records in the digital space what does this mean for the future evidence base? In the Hutton Inquiry emails proved critical to the evidence base. In this instance the emails interrogated were still available on the systems and servers in which they had been created. However, had the Inquiry been later and the emails been managed through time then the evidential status of these emails would have been subject to questions surrounding their integrity and authenticity. Since our future evidence base will be digital and multi-media, the reliability, authenticity and usability are crucial if we are to avoid losing our ability to interrogate records through time.

The proposed novel international multidisciplinary research network is led by internationally recognised researchers in records management with The National Archives (TNA), UK government's official archive. The aim is to bring together practitioners, academics and others to explore how the digital has put the traditional concept of the record at risk and work towards a new concept of the digital record; to identify the key issues and challenges of ensuring the future usability of digital records (the evidence base) by all stakeholders through time; to propose a research agenda to address the challenges, and to facilitate effective collaboration to progress digital records research in theory and practice. The network will engage expertise in information, law, digital humanities and computer forensics and a wide range of communities (e.g. the public, historians) to provide perspectives to feed into research and ultimately good practice solutions. Using social media tools, participants from any community will be able to contribute to the network.

1 Keen, A. (2007). The cult of the amateur. Nicholas Brealey. p 23-4.

Planned Impact

TNA has recently completed an AHRC funded project 'Big data for law' which looked at how to make the UK's published statute books available digitally. This dealt with published information in a limited number of formats at scale (e.g. PDFs and web pages for Acts of Parliament in standardized formats on one Internet site). It did not deal with the complex range of original evidence. Despite its breadth of expertise TNA recognises that managing the digital evidence base through time remains one of its biggest challenges as well as an international challenge which cannot be solved in isolation. It requires a sustainable multidisciplinary international network to tackle the challenges.

Previous attempts to tackle the digital record (notably InterPARES and Pittsburgh) have largely remained object orientated within very specific boundaries of the same theoretical paradigm of the digital recordkeeping, which comprises archives and records management. This network will build on the InterPARES work but will reach out to make the link to theory and practice within other domains and concentrating on concepts of the digital DNA. The network is extremely important to the records, archives and information management professionals globally. These domains need to make stronger, lasting links with a range of disciplines (e.g. computer sciences and law) to remain relevant but also to ensure that their contribution to society is understood and maximized.

There is an assumption that the world of information overload ensures that we will always have information but, in an evidential context, it is important to have exactly the records one requires not just information on a certain subject. There is a whole philosophical and legal debate not only on the needs of evidence but the outcomes of an absence of evidence (see Turvey, 2008 and If we are to avoid this scenario then it is important to ensure we understand the DNA of records and manage them effectively through time. Data storage decisions are currently being made to push data out into the Cloud. However, the true impact of these decisions is currently hidden. These strategies are stretching the components of the record and the links can and will break through time if the components are not recognised. In addition they shift the legal landscape surrounding the access and ownership of information.

The network will engage with leading records/archives experts internationally, in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada, as they have a history of successful collaboration with the UK, e.g. through the development of international standards and guidelines such as the records management standard ISO 15489). To tackle this 'grand challenge' these same experts will be tasked with connecting to others in designated knowledge domains which will thus snowball the network to experts beyond our discipline boundaries in order to solve key conceptual and practical components of the agenda.

The network will support the creation, retention, sustainability and usability of digital content. Users and stakeholders include governments, policy-makers, decision makers, business, independent researchers and the millions who use records online for family and local history research. Users of future archives are the long term beneficiaries of the implementation of good practices which are shifting and changing through time. The Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday and Goddard Inquiries demonstrate the supreme importance of the survival of usable records. The outcome of the network, based on the conceptualisation of a record's DNA, will facilitate the usability of the digital record for future researchers, public inquiries etc.

Turvey, B. (2008). Criminal profiling: an introduction to behavioral evidence analysis. Elsevier.


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Description Different perspectives on the 'DNA' of a digital record and a set of further research questions/areas for research required to support the availability and usability of the future digital evidence base.
Exploitation Route The three infographics developed from the project have been disseminated widely and freely available on the project website. Aimed at different stakeholders they can be used for awareness raising and research project development
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description After the Digital Revolution network 
Organisation Loughborough University
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Presented at the second workshop of the Dr Lise Jaillant's 'After the Digital Revolution' by invitation directly as a result of this AHRC network. Shared the findings and promoted the outputs to be disseminated. Contributed to the discussions across both days.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Jaillant organised a workshop as part of her British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award bringing together archivists and scholars. The event provided an opportunity to extend the reach of the network and engage new people from different diciplines. Dr Jaillant will help disseminate our outputs.
Impact No outputs yet. Disciplines include: archival science, records management, history, librarianship, english literature, digital humanities
Start Year 2018
Description Digital records as Evidence to underpin global development goals 
Organisation University of London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Participated in a 2-day workshop the aim of which was to explore a series of "fundametanl dilemmas" and scope a report and edited volume of essays on the subject. Invitation linked to our network.
Collaborator Contribution Contributed to the discussions based on early results from our network.
Impact Currently working on a chapter for the edited volume of essays with Prof Elizabeth Shepherd, UCL. Multidisciplinary: archives and records management; dta science; history; statistics
Start Year 2017