Ten questions to Jan Dalsten Sørensen
Head of Communication of Archival Data at the Danish National Archives (“Rigsarkivet”) and former Chair of the DLM Forum, a not-for-profit foundation active in information governance, including archives, records, document and information lifecycle management.
CESSDA asked Jan Dalsten Sørensen to answer a few questions.
How are you coping with the COVID-19 crisis and how do you make sure that you get work done?
As for many people, I am now used to working from home. I do not really think much about how to get things done because for me it has become just business as usual. My days are in many ways the same as they were when we could actually go to work. Some colleagues have started coming in now to work physically and if we have a Skype meeting they say “okay, I'm at work today” and I think “I’m at work too, I'm just working from home!”.
With all the modern technology that we have, our computers, Skype, Zoom, emails, and we have our phones, so it is fully possible to have a normal workday. I work the same hours as I would have if I were in the office. I work from say 8 CET to 16-17 CET and I do not work outside of that if I can help it.
Even though I am working from home, I do not want to mix up work and my private life. I get up in the morning and get a blue shirt on and I can wear my t-shirts when I am not at work.
Before all this, what would a typical working day have looked like? How does it look now?
As head of department, my days always consist of a lot of meetings. I know a lot of people are critical about meetings, but they are in many ways necessary. You have to talk to people in your department and from other departments. Now our meetings are on Skype or Zoom and I have to brew my coffee myself.
There are a lot of meetings, emails, and phone calls. They are all necessary for the day-to-day business in your department to run smoothly.
Of course, I need to set aside time to write briefs. At the national archives in Denmark, and I guess many other similar institutions, we like to write, and we have a culture of writing a lot, so I write a lot! For instance, our plans at the level of the department for next year or our views on a certain topic.
I therefore must make sure that I have time for the day-to-day business and set aside time for writing and planning ahead. Otherwise, it is suddenly 2022 and what plans do we have?
I also communicate a lot also with people from the outside world, outside of the archives. I am interested in how the national archives can help them and to develop solutions together with them.
That is what my days looked like before and that is what my days look like now. The main difference between then and now is that I have lost all the informal communication with my colleagues.
Usually, you would see people over lunch or hang out by the coffee machine or people would just pop by your office. After over a year where we have mostly been working from home, I think it is starting to get critical. We can continue with our new routines, but at some point, you also need to develop new ideas or get something new started. That is really hard when you do not have these informal meetings with your colleagues anymore. We have tried casual Zoom calls, but it has not really worked that well.
Can you highlight three main ways that your work has supported researchers over the last few months?
One of the things that we do a lot at my department is handing out data to be used in a range of research projects. A main part of our work is to make sure that researchers that need data that have been submitted to us can get access to them. Either they can download them, or we can give them, specifically our data. That has certainly been very important not only in the last few months but for a very long time. It is the reason why we exist, and we also have researchers from other countries that use our collections.
A new project is a website called “Folk i Fortiden”, i.e. Danish for “people in the past”. It offers a map of Denmark where you can pinpoint say a parish that you are interested in and then you can get information about the population in that particular area, based on transcribed data from censuses or parish registers. For instance, you may want to find out what was the distribution between men and women in the parish that your great-great-great-great-grandfather lived in in 1850, or what the age distribution was, etc.
We have taken the data that we have and transcribed them and then presented them in a new way. You can also download these data from the website. This is appealing for genealogists, but we certainly also hope that a lot of other researchers will be able to see the potential of accessing this kind of data.
Later this year we will also launch a new platform that will exhibit metadata about both governmental and research data on the same platform. At the national archives, we have collected a great deal of digital data over the years and metadata. However, they have not been exhibited in a good enough way. One of the best things about this this platform is that it will show our entire collection of digital data whether it is research data or governmental data. You will be able to see the entire collection presented on the same platform. This will hopefully make it easier for researchers to find both types of data.
For example, if a researcher has been working with research data, they may now be more inclined to wonder whether there is something in the governmental digital records that they could use for their research.
You studied history and Latin and started your career in a public museum before starting at the National Data Archive as an archivist. How did you get to where you are today? And do you still read Latin?
When I was in in graduate school, I was an intern at a public museum, and I was hoping for a job at a museum because I really liked that that type of work. When I had graduated, I needed a job so I applied to any job that I felt I could do. There was an open position at the national archives for an IT archivist and I got the job. At the time, I did not know much about archives but fortunately it turned out to be very interesting.
I was hired to do an appraisal of governmental data and I came in with a history background so I could help define what type of information should be kept for posterity. As a historian, I was very aware that we, as a society, needed to make sure that we document today's society for future research, so that was what I did for the first couple of years. I made appraisal decisions on IT systems to make sure that government agencies organise their digital information in a way that meant that it could potentially be submitted to the national archives. It can be very difficult and expensive if archiving has not been considered early on and the national archives come and say, “hey we need a copy of your data” and you are wondering “how do we handle this?”. If you start working with that at an early stage, it is much easier for you as an agency to do that.
I also worked with the documentation that agencies needed to transfer with the data. After a couple of years, I became head of that section and then in an organisational change in 2007, I became head of digital preservation so that's when history took more of a background role. I was head of that department until April this year, when I moved to the department that we call communication of archival data.
Our purpose is to make our data accessible. We must ask ourselves “how can we make our data useful for people?”. I feel that it has been a privilege to have started working on the ingest side and then move on to preservation and now data access. This is now my twenty third year at the national archives and I would have never thought that I would stay so long. It just continues to be a great place to work!
To answer the other part of your question, I do not really read Latin anymore. I had a go during the winter because there was nothing we could do, due to lockdown. You could not go out, you could not invite people over, so I started reading from Ceasar's Gallic Wars (“Commentarii de Bello Gallico”) but I did not get that far. Then spring was here, and I could start doing something outside instead. The potential is there for me to pick it up again at some point.
a) Can you tell us about some exciting upcoming data projects from DNA?
b) You are also Chair of the DLM Forum. Can you tell us more about your work there?
I can answer both in one as it is true that I have been the chair of the DLM Forum since 2017, and in the board or the executive committee since 2015. I recently decided that it was time for me to step aside and let somebody else take over. Just last week we had the annual general meeting, so that is a closed chapter, although I have truly cherished the chance to do some international cooperation and networking with colleagues in other countries1.
In terms of current and upcoming projects at the Danish National Archives (DNA), first of all, we are in the process of defining a new standard for how you submit data to the national archives.
We are working on implementing a new European standard for database preservation and the package structure that you use when you submit data. We have played an active role in the project that has developed those new standards, so now we need to implement them in our own legislation. That way we can make sure that DNA becomes part of a larger community for the preservation of digital information. From my new perspective as head of the communication of archival data this is very interesting, as it allows us to design new access solutions together with other European countries rather than on our own.
In a few years’ time, we will be able to give access to our data using tools and methods that we have developed together with other institutions, which I think is really promising. This time around we have really taken the user perspective when defining the requirements that we set up for the submission of data.
Naturally, we have always thought about what sort of documentation is needed for making data available. However, now that we have a lot more user experience than we had a decade ago when defining the last piece of legislation, we can say much more easily that “when you submit data to the archive, you need to do this and that, you need to document like this you need to describe it like this…”. That will make it easier for our users to use the archived data.
We have several other projects in the pipeline that will take our digitised paper records and create new data sets out of them using OCR (optical character recognition) or HTR (Handwritten Text Recognition). A lot of our records are for example protocols where you have columns with numbers, and we are experimenting with digitising those protocols and converting these numbers to a data set that can be used by a researcher. That is something that we will do a lot more of in the coming years. It opens a data collection up in a completely new way for researchers. Not everyone is willing to go page by page through a paper book.
Just last year you completed a Master of Public Governance at Copenhagen Business School. What do you intend to do with this?
Back in the old days, if you were the head of a department or something you would usually be the smartest specialist and the reason you were chosen to head a department would be that you were the one who knew most about the particular area of work.
But that is not the way things work anymore. Today, you have to do a lot more as head of a department or a manager that does not necessarily have as much to do with the specialised tasks that you do in your department. You have to be able to manage change, to make sure that the organisation works, and that people feel well at work.
There are so many other things that you need to learn to be a manager. I would therefore say that the Master of Public Governance is an education that should help you to be a good manager in the public domain. We have a lot of requirements for what it's like to be a public manager so what I will do with it is to hopefully improve and continue to improve as a manager!
I want to manage the specialists who know their subject much more than I do. I hope that this education will help me be a better manager!
As former Divisional Head of Digital Preservation, what do you take-away from that experience? Is Denmark on track in its handling of digital records?
I would say that Denmark is on track. We have set up a system where all state agencies have to notify the national archives on their IT systems and then the national archives make the appraisal decision and make sure the data is submitted before they become obsolete.
We have a relatively good procedure for the actual preservation of data and we also have a structure in place for making data accessible. Overall, I would say that we are on track but what I have learned from being a head of digital preservation is that it is often complicated when it comes to IT. There is always something that you have not thought about and there is always something that requires a specialist that you have not got either.
We should certainly make sure that we always have the right resources to continue to carry out this work. It’s not the type of work where you can ever say that you are finished. Technology is always developing and what the agencies use for instance when they produce data or the technology that is used in research institutions to produce research data will just continue to give us new challenges that we have to uh to deal with.
One important lesson is that this work is never done, and you have to make sure that you keep up with technology. You cannot just make the world stop going around because you need time to think about how to handle the complexity.
How do government data and research data supplement each other? What do today’s research data users need?
It has been very important for us in the past couple of years to make sure that we do not divide too much between governmental data and research data. From a research perspective, if you want to do research in a particular area, you should be aware of both the research data that we have in that area but also the fact that a lot of government institutions might have similarly relevant data.
Our aim is for them to look at our collection as a whole and find information they can use from both governmental records and the research data that we have at the archive. These are two important components that you should look at together. Of course, some of the research data that we have, such as survey data, have some characteristics that you might not find in governmental data. We should also keep in mind and respect that they have been created under different conditions and they might also be used in different contexts.
I think that today’s researchers need a good mix of data. They need to be able to easily understand and access the data that we have. During the exploration phase of their research project, they will be looking at what type of information we have at DNA to see if it could come in handy for their project. It is therefore crucial to have good and solid metadata. Data must be documented in a way that allows them to be made sense of and reused. That is probably the most important thing!
Maybe researchers also need inspiration! I have often thought that it would be a good idea for us at the archives to have some showcases of how data have been used so that they can get inspiration to research projects that they can use or do based on our data.
One of CESSDA’s core products is our Data Management Expert Guide (DMEG). What are the main barriers for the reuse of research data and code and how can we tackle them?
One barrier could be the lack of technical knowledge. By this I do not mean that researchers do not have technical knowledge, but if you want to broaden the group of people working with your data, then you may need to consider how to make sure that they have the necessary technical skills to work with this particular type of source material.
Imagine that you are a historian and that you are used to working with mainly documents. Then we, as the national archives, need to look into how we can make it easier for you to work with a statistical data set or a database.
Although I would not necessarily call the European Data Protection Regulation, GDPR, a barrier, I do think that many researchers have experienced working with personal data under secure circumstances as a difficult if not daunting task. For that reason, anonymisation of data sets is crucial, in other words taking out the personally identifiable information out, so that you, as a researcher, can work with them. This is definitely something that you need to think about and that might make your life a little bit more complicated.
What are you most looking forward to achieving in 2021?
Our department on communication of archival data is a relatively new department. It was created in January 2020, only a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic closed everything down. This means that we have not had much chance to meet in person, as a team. My main goal for 2021 is therefore to make sure that when we begin 2022, we have a clear direction for our future work.
On a personal note, I would love to have some more flowers on my balcony, as they have a tendency to die!
What do you typically do after work on a nice day in Copenhagen like today?
As I live in the city, I feel that I have to take advantage of the fact that I live very close to the beach and can get some fresh air very easily. I am on the island where the airport is, south of the city centre.
I swim all year round. Well, “swim” is too much to say because in January or February, I just go for a quick dip! Now it is warm enough to actually swim so that is something I really love to do. I also like to go for a run along the beach.
1 Jan Dalsten stepped down as Chair of the DLM Forum at the General Assembly meeting in May 2021.
Jan Dalsten Sørensen is on Twitter!
Communication of Archival Data. Danish National Archives (sa.dk): Communication of Archival Data exhibits the Danish National Archives’ data in new ways so that both existing and new users are aware of and use unexploited opportunities in the Danish National Archives’ data.
Link-Lives – A Research Project: We reconstruct life-courses and multigenerational family relations for (nearly) all Danes, from 1787–1968
Use survey data from our collection - the Danish National Archives (sa.dk)
See the previous article in this series: CESSDA asks ten questions to Sébastien Oliveau.