Future Proof attends ‘Future Proof’ conference October 25, 2010

Future proofers Cassie, Kate and Richard recently attended the 2010 Australian Society of Archivists conference which had the theme ‘Future Proof: Resilient Archives 2020 and Beyond’ (no relation!). Melbourne’s mixed weather didn’t dampen a great program, highlights of which follow…

Generational change: The Loris Williams Memorial Lecture

Dr Shannon Faulkhead’s lecture was entitled ‘Holding Gunditjmara knowledge: community and records working together’. She described Monash University’s involvement in a project to help develop frameworks, processes and protocols to assist the Gunditjmara community in maintaining, accessing and preserving their knowledge. Shannon made the point that we can tend to think of indigenous recordkeeping quesions as being somehow unique but there are many commonalities, for example we all value oral communication as records (e.g. we all travelled to Melbourne in order to hear the speakers give their papers in person).

Environmental change: Reconstruction, memorialising and fostering community

Rachel U’ren spoke about the establishment of recordkeeping systems for the Royal Commission into the Victorian bushfires. Rachel drew on Keyword AAA as well as the National Archives of Australia’s and State Records New South Wales’ disposal authorities for royal commissions to establish a business classification scheme. Due to the nature of the information and evidence collected, protections were put into the system to ensure that staff didn’t accidently access images or statements that might have been disturbing.

Other speakers in this session included one of the Royal Commissioners, Susan Pascoe, and Dr Danielle Clode, a researcher in bushfires, who described the inaccessibility of information about past fires because big fires tend to occur only once in a generation. She noted that for the general public it is often difficult to find maps of where fires have occurred in the past. She would like to see more public information identifying where fires have occurred.

Technological change: Digital recordkeeping – are we at a tipping point?

Kate and Cassie presented this paper on the overall state of recordkeeping in NSW. They argued that recordkeeping in NSW, and perhaps elsewhere, is poised precariously at a tipping point (definition: the point at which an object is displaced from a state of stable equilibrium into a new, different state).

Are we tipping into a new state of effective, empowered recordkeeping, a point where the significant process, automation, authentication and cost benefits offered by digital recordkeeping are at last being broadly recognised? Or are we tipping into the abyss? Falling into an environment where the threats, risks and significant concerns that have been voiced for many years are beginning to threaten all current and future recordkeeping practice? How do we build upon the positive and rectify the negative to ensure that the balance is tipped in favour of good, long term and sustainable recordkeeping practice?

Adrian Cunningham provided a commentary on the paper, noting that there has been a growing recognition at the National Archives of Australia and elsewhere that we need to simplify our requirements and that perhaps we should be aiming for ‘good enough’ recordkeeping rather than best practice if we are to achieve anything at all. He also spoke about the need for the recordkeeping profession to have a game changing personality come onto the scene to shake us up and revitalize the profession: to change recordkeeping in the way Elvis Presley or Johnny Rotten changed music.

Generational change: Retention and disposal – finding and keeping our archivists

This session centred around a paper by Jenny Moran of the Society of Archivists (UK) entitled ‘Dusty, boring, single with a cat: why be an archivist?’ A panel of four Australian archivists responded to this paper by describing their own archival careers and the remainder of the session was open for discussion.

This proved to be an inspiring session. Jenny’s paper gave an entertaining overview of a survey she had conducted on job satisfaction in UK archives. The 100+ responses she received showed that, although underpaid, with poor potential for career advancement, and frequently perceived by the public as being ‘dusty and boring’, archivists actually have a very high rate of job satisfaction. Archivists enjoy their work and see it as having great public utility.

The wide-ranging discussion focussed on how the next generation of archivists would be recruited. While traditional historical paths to the profession will continue to be valued, there was much emphasis on the importance of recruiting those with skills in technology.

There was also interesting debate about recordkeeping education in Australia. Professor Sue McKemmish of Monash University stated that it now costs $30 000 to do a Masters Degree in recordkeeping. Because costs are so significant, virtually the only people who do these degrees are foreign students or people who have been working in recordkeeping for a number of years. As a result there are very few ‘new’ people joining the profession in Australia which threatens the health and longevity of the profession.

Environmental Change: Cloud Computing

Nathan Bailey gave an overview of the nature and implications of cloud computing. He likened it to renting rather than owning property or as ‘utility computing’, where it is possible to tailor storage and processing power to the amounts you actually need at any point in time.

Professor Loane Skene followed with a talk about Health Information laws in Australia. She described how the rights of individuals to privacy are balanced against community needs (e.g. to use health information in research).

Generational change: Recognising the worth of the archive and archivist

Zoe D’Arcy from the National Archives of Australia asked ‘Do the wrong people value our archives?’ She examined the accrual accountancy based practices that are currently used in the Commonwealth Government to put a dollar price on the National Archives’ collection. In a nice analogy to the theory of Schrödinger’s cat, she asked can we only put a value on a box that a researcher has opened? Is it only at the moment of use that we can judge worth or is it possible to put a value on potential significance? Essentially the true value and importance of archival collections is impossible to quantify and unfortunately this does make them vulnerable and potentially hard to justify in an economic rationalist world.

Jenny Moran then spoke about current threats to archives in the United Kingdom. With a recession and a new government committed to radical cost cutting, many archives in the UK are having to contemplate what they would do if their archive is disbanded. Some archives are making contingency plans for returning and repatriating record collections if they are called upon to close their doors. Public access programs may be very popular but they can also be visible targets as ‘non essential’ work. There is also a strong push to replace archivists with volunteers in outreach and even core recordkeeping roles.

Barbara Reed spoke last with a discussion of a ‘Quality Improvement Framework’ self-assessment tool she has developed for the Scottish Council on Archives. It has been released for consultation and is available at www.scoarch.org.uk/notice-board/171. Rather than traditional means of reporting on recordkeeping activity which are primarily quantitative (i.e. use of statistics such as shelf metres under management or numbers of records accessioned), this tool applies more broadly accepted benchmarks to recordkeeping practice. It attempts to measure community satisfaction, impacts on accountability and contributions to business process (i.e. qualitative reporting). Barbara argued that statistics such as the numbers of boxes we have on our shelves aren’t persuasive. Measurements that demonstrate community and business impacts have greater relevance.

Technological change: Archives 2.0 – the future landscape for our profession in government

Cassie joined Adrian Cunningham and Andrew Wilson in this session to discuss the future of government recordkeeping.

Adrian commenced the session with a description of his work on the Federal Government’s Gov 2.0 taskforce, the recordkeeping implications of the taskforce’s recommendations, and the successful integration of recordkeeping requirements into those recommendations.

Cassie discussed these developments in the NSW context and gave examples of cloud-based systems that are changing the recordkeeping landscape.

Andrew then discussed the incredible quantity of government research data, the lack of appraisal discipline in this area, the growing value of data re-use, and the question of whether this data constitutes ‘records’ according to government recordkeeping legislation.

In the discussion that followed, Justine Heazlewood (PROV) stated that in Victoria, in practical implementation, ‘recordness’ is decided according to the purpose for the data’s generation. In the digital world these data collections can have significant long-term worth and impact and so PROV sees it as important that they are managed within a recordkeeping framework.

Another key point of the discussion was the possibility of more effectively opening up the data in archival control systems for re-use. It was mentioned that both the NAA’s and NARA’s archival control data had been made available on data.gov.au and data.gov respectively. Eric Ketelaar stated that archives need to embrace a ‘web 2.0’ world and open up their collections and their systems to public interaction.

Technological change: What will survive us?

In this fascinating session Gionni di Gravio (University of Newcastle) spoke about Indigenous rock carvings in the Hunter region which are under threat from vandalism and mining. Stone has survived the ages, but what will remain of the ‘machine shadows’ that are cast by contemporary humanity?

Susannah Haydon and Meg Labrum (National Film and Sound Archive) spoke about audio visual archiving in the digital age. Susannah is a ‘futurist’ and spoke of the need to embrace new skill sets and to have vision. Meg spoke about the profound change occurring in audio visual archives when digital objects rather than analogue artefacts become the archival material.

Graeme Johanson (Monash University) commentated on this session and made the point that human structures (e.g. community mores and intellectual memes) are very resilient and will survive us even if our records don’t.

Technological change: If you build it will they come?

James Doig from the National Archives of Australia described the transfer of digital records of various royal commissions to the NAA’s digital archive. About 3 million digital objects (dating from the 1970s onwards) have been transferred, comprising between 1.5 and 2 terabytes. The NAA has received comparatively few digital records from current agencies, possibly due to the difficulties agencies are having with digital disposal. The transfers they do regularly receive are from short-lived bodies where there is no logical alternative home for the records.

The other presentation in this session was written by Proscovia Svard, a PhD candidate in Sweden and presented by Marian Hoy. Proscovia looked at mandates in Sweden for the provision of digital access to government services and the consequent growth of content management and digital records management in government. Her research demonstrates threats to digital information maintained in content management systems but although senior managers in government are aware of their responsibilities they are struggling to resource these new and urgent requirements.

Generational change: What skills are needed as an archivist?

In this session, Meg Labrum (NFSA) and Bob Pymm (Charles Sturt University) spoke about an audio visual archiving course and how it is being adapted to meet the digital challenge. Judith Gibson (Caulfield Grammar School) and Catherine Robinson (State Records NSW) then spoke,  discussing their personal educational journeys and views on industry training. This session sparked much discussion including how to encourage Indigenous Australians to become archivists.

Environmental change: Symbolic spaces and places

Jean McAuslan of the Victorian Shrine of Remembrance (St Kilda) described the evolution in meaning of that building, how new generations bring new contexts and interpretations to it. She described how over time the Shrine has been shaped by these interpretations, e.g. the movement of the entrance way from the peace side (with a sculptural scene of home coming) to the war side (call to arms). She talked about how in exhibitions she has curated she has tried to juxtapose these different interpretations, for example, by placing personal and poetic narratives alongside museum pieces and records.

Mary Kenealy of the Marysville Historical Society then gave a very moving account of the destruction of their entire collection by fire. The Society had a disaster plan in which vital records were maintained in a trailer for easy evacuation. That trailer was not evacuated and was destroyed along with the society’s building. Mary has planted bulbs in the trailer’s molten and warped wreckage as a reminder of their most precious records. Since the fire, they have had many donations of historical materials relating to Marysville that had been scattered all over. They have also had many other things donated (such as books from the National Library of Ireland) and they plan to broaden their collecting remit beyond Marysville.

Technological change: Appraise 2.0

This interactive session included a final message that underlined a lot of the key issues discussed at the conference: is appraisal an arcane science or is it the archival profession’s key gift to the 21st century? Discussion at this session, and throughout the conference, soundly demonstrated that appraisal is critical in the digital world and is the means by which our profession can demonstrate its worth to business, to IT, to data managers, and to archival researchers of the future.

From summaries compiled by Kate Cumming, Cassie Findlay, Richard Lehane and Catherine Robinson

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