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UK Records Office: Let's Get Digital

U.K. government and law court records from the 11th Century onward will be freely available to the public starting in 2005, thanks to the country's Freedom of Information Act. However, storing and managing these records poses a major IT challenge for the Public Record Office (PRO), which has set to work on developing a digital archiving system (see FileTek Wins UK Archiving Contract).

Traditionally, the PRO has stored documents only in paper format, filed away in secret to gather dust under the government's 30-year rule. After this period, they could be retrieved -- if anyone still cared or had the patience to locate them.

Under the new Freedom of Information Act, the records office must provide: "A general right of access to information held by public authorities in a timely manner," subject to certain conditions and exemptions [ed. note: of course].

The paper records will pretty much stay as they are, but starting next month, PRO will be accepting electronic documents from government departments, which it will archive digitally, according to Robert Taylor, a PRO spokesman. Welcome to the 21st Century!

"In the past, documents would arrive in paper form, but nowadays it's all emails, or databases, or Microsoft Office documents or even virtual reality documents," Taylor says. By "virtual reality documents" he means 3D models that reconstruct a scene, such as the Bloody Sunday Massacre, as part of a government inquiry.

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