Microsoft has come to the National Archive's rescue and is enabling it to read defunct Windows and Office file formats. The National Archive (NA) says it will be better able to read yesterday's and today's digital government information tomorrow.

The National Archive is a UK government body with responsibility for storing government information papers and files. It calls itself 'the nation's memory' and contains files covering 1,000 years of the UK's history, stored on 167km of shelving, plus some 580 terabytes of digital information. Many terabytes of this is stored in file formats that are no longer supported. The information is unreadable with modern versions of, for example, Microsoft Windows and Office.

It has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Microsoft and gets access to previous versions of Microsoft’s Windows operating systems and Office applications powered by Microsoft Virtual PC 2007. Virtual PC 2007 enables people to run multiple operating systems at the same time on the same computer. The National Archives can configure any combination of Windows and Office from one PC, enabling access to practically any document based on legacy Microsoft file formats.

The NA's chief executive, Natalie Ceeney, said: "The ephemeral nature of digital information, resulting from the rapid evolution of technology, is a major challenge facing government and our society today. Unless we take action, we face the certainty of losing years of critical knowledge. That’s why it is essential that The National Archives, together with the IT industry, address the challenge now. Our relationship with Microsoft supports our work in digital preservation and gives us many key tools to access the legacy of government for years to come.”

Gordon Frazer, Microsoft's UK MD, said: “Microsoft took the step to implement XML-based file formats that unlock data in documents, allowing them to be archived, restructured, aggregated and re-used in new and dynamic ways. As a result, the latest releases of Office use open-standard file formats – Open XML. Our MOU with The National Archives will go beyond this and ensure that decisions we make in future products will meet the rigorous requirements of digital preservation. More importantly, ensure that future generations do not suffer the fate of a digital dark age.”

The NA hasn't declared support for the existing ISO-approved Open Document Format which is arguably more representative of 'the IT industry.' Microsoft has refused to support ODF, preferring to get its own Open Office XML (OOXML) authorised as a standard. ECMA has approved it but not the more prestigious ISO.

In effect The National Archive has helped Microsoft in its OOXML standardisation efforts.

Digital preservation effort

The digital preservation effort is long-standing. In 1995 the Public Record Office established the Electronic Records from Office Systems (EROS) Programme, focused on the management of electronic records across government. The overall goal of the EROS Programme was to ensure that electronic records of long term value, created across government, are available for future access.

One aspect of this dealt with the long term transfer and access strategy: the programme aimed to develop standards to provide software suppliers and departments with a way of passing records to the PRO electronically - and without loss of functionality.

Unfortunately this effort seems to have stumbled as the NA had to confront the problem of digital records it held being unreadable, an ultimate loss of functionality.

On June 14th, 2007, the NA set up a digital preservation effort to look at options for setting up a shared service across government departments to take, migrate and preserve digital data on their behalf.

Natalie Ceeney then said: "Making sure that information remains accessible despite the rapid pace of changes in technology is a significant issue for all government departments. There is a real danger of losing critical knowledge vital for today´s government business. Effective digital preservation is essential to ensure government´s accountability, business continuity and efficiency."

Three weeks later the NA has signed an MOU with Microsoft. That's fast work.