National Archives chief Jeff James: "The shift to digital means nothing will ever be the same again"

Written by Civil Service World on 16 December 2015 in Interview

With the end of 2015 in sight, we asked Whitehall's top officials to review the year, set out their priorities for 2016 – and shed some light on their festive plans. Jeff James, Chief Executive and Keeper at The National Archives, takes part in our biggest-ever perm secs round-up series...

How did you tackle the biggest challenges facing your organisation in 2015?
As government’s expert in the management, preservation and use of information, our single biggest strategic challenge is digital. Digital technology has changed forever the way that government works and how it creates, keeps and understands its records. The transition to the new 20-year rule means that over the next few years we’ll see an ever-increasing volume of digital records transferred to The National Archives and opened to the public. But this won’t just “happen”. 

At The National Archives we have been thinking about this for a long time. We’ve created the technical infrastructure necessary to ingest, preserve and present this new generation of “born-digital” records. In 2015 the first set of these records went live – available to search, browse and view through Discovery, our online catalogue. And we haven’t simply built new tools. Through collaboration, assessment, support and targeted training we’re equipping government to meet the challenges of digital. We’re also supporting cutting-edge research in this area. 

These are exciting times. The shift from paper to digital is a bit like the change in popular music wrought by the release of Sgt Pepper nearly 50 years ago. Nothing will ever be the same again!

What are your top priorities for 2016?
We’ve just launched Archives Inspire, our plan for the next four years. Digital runs right through it, but it also talks in a very direct and refreshing way about our work with each of our major audiences: government, the public, the wider archives sector and the academic and research community. We want to change the way people think about archives – what they are, what they offer and their potential to change lives.

What film do you hope to watch over the festive period – and what’s the best game to play with the family on Christmas Day?
With three sons under the age of five, my longer-term dream is to sit down with them to watch, back-to-back, the three original Star Wars films. But this year I may have to be content with building the Lego version with them.

Perm secs round-up 2015: Whitehall's top civil servants review the year – and look ahead to 2016

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