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« Tuna 3 / 2020

A Quarter of a Century of Information Technology at the Estonian National Archives

The first computers made their way to the archives in 1992–1993, when the first Foxpro and Paradox databases started being compiled with their help: the Album Academicum and the catalogue of historical records and documents at the History Archive, registries of directories and catalogues of archival collections at the National Archive, and a database of sounds at the Film Archive.

By 2020, the administration of all the operations of the main activity of the National Archives has become fully digital. Numerous large, complex information systems have been adopted and independently developed. The public web interface of the Archival Information System (AIS) was launched in 2004 and the entry of the data on all archival records was completed by 2009. An archival registry existed in 2000–2011, which was an instrument of its time for managing archival data and for fostering communication between institutions and the National Archives. Its importance has disappeared over time. Saaga, the collection of digitised sources, was made available to the public in 2005 and by the end of 2019, there were nearly 21 million images of archival material in Saaga. The Film Archive Information System (FIS) was completed at the start of 2008. The information system of photographs Fotis began functioning in 2009 and was renewed and updated at the start of 2018. The information system of maps was completed in 2010. The virtual archival reading room VAU, which was opened in 2009, has become the central system for all functions of the customer service of the National Archives, enabling the placing of all reading room requests and orders for copies associated with archival records, the sending of archival queries, the processing of notifications and letters of reply, and the managing of applications for access. The National Archives have involved volunteer archive users in large-scale work making entries drawn from digitised archival materials. This has been an important aspect in the implementation of several joint creative projects. The National Archives administer and develop several dozen different web databases and applications in total.

The digitisation of archival materials began in 2003 with the scanning of microfilms. Digital activities have developed hand in hand with acquired technology and the possible sources of financing available at any given time. About 1–2 million frames have been digitised per year since 2012.

The development of digital archival systems has taken place evolutionarily at the National Archives. The drawing up of legislation, the preparation of development plans and projects, the training of specialists, the acquisition of experience in international cooperation, changes in organisational structure, and finding sources of financing have led to practical archival activity after the first pilot projects. Less archiving directly from document management systems has taken place than was hoped for in the transfer of material from institutions that has been produced digitally, yet at the same time, the transfer of digital films and databases has grown rapidly.

The National Archives participates in international cooperation in information technology and digital archiving through several international organisations: the DLM Forum, the Open Preservation Foundation (OPF), and Archives Portal Europe Foundation (APEF). Research and development projects funded by the European Commission have been a particularly important opportunity for development, establishing international contacts, and for starting to deal with new, innovative themes. In many cases, the results of the original Euro-project have remained at the theoretical or proof-of-concept level, but the themes of these projects have been developed further in Estonia as well as internationally, and practical applications have soon followed.

Together with the development of information technology and the growth of e-government in Estonia, the National Archives have become an institution that functions entirely digitally. While Estonian archival administration went through a rebirth in the 1990s together with the entire country, which was at times difficult, and the archives learned from the experiences of other countries in the 2000s, and new information technology systems and the principles following from them were created and introduced in the 2010s, the Estonian National Archives will surely be one of those progressive European central archives in the newly begun 2020s, the experiences of which others will want to learn from.