Archives and Manuscripts. Volume 37, no.2, November 2009

I’ve just come back from THATCamp Canberra,, where I met Sebastian Gruciullo, and attended a workshop by Mitchell Whitelaw.  Which reminded me that I needed to finish this report…

There are some very different perspectives on archives and access to them in this volume, and some interesting suggestions for future directions for archives and archivists.  However, the volume starts with obituaries for two foundation members of the Australian profession – Mollie Lukis, of Western Australia, and Doreen Wheeler, of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.  Both obituaries are about passionate and dedicated women, who had a range and depth to their interests and passions, which means that their influence is ongoing and their presence sorely missed. Mollie’s obituary was written by Bob Sharman, with Margaret Medcalf and Lennie McCall, while Doreen’s was compiled from the eulogy written by Jim MacDonald and her 1989 citation as an honorary life member of the Australian Society of Archivists, by Peter Crush. From the foundations wrought by these two women and their colleagues comes an environment that welcomes experimentation and consideration of alternate records. 

Dr Mitchell Whitelaw,, writes about his project visualising the NAA collection, supported by the 2008 Ian MacLean Award in ‘Visualising archival collections’.  The basis of the project was to create visualisations that would assist in contextualising archival descriptive data, counteracting the content focus created by digitisation and item level listings.  Whitelaw attempted to visualise both the whole of the NAA collection, based on items available in RecordSearch, and then to focus on a single series.  At a collection level, he looked at the NAA series A1 ( I tried to find the link on RecordSearch, but the new system won’t let me choose Series).   This is a series which includes over 64,000 items and Whitelaw has modelled this in a number of ways, including through histograms and charts easily identifiable from school maths classes, through to more complex visualisations and wordclouds.   As a prototype of different ways of looking at data, and providing context, it’s an interesting experiment, which archivists and artists may well take on and develop. 

Anne Marie Conde’s article, ‘Lives lived in silence’, looks, not at archives and description, but at silences in recordkeeping and social memory.  Using the novel First Man, by Albert Camus, as a starting point,  she looks at how memory, culture and society are recorded and remembered.  Camus’ protagonist, Jacques, is raised by an illiterate, deaf mother, following the death of his father shortly after Jacques’ birth.  Unable to communicate well, worn down by care, Jacques’ mother can provide only traces of her dead husband.  Searching for his father’s family in Algeria, Jacques can find only a small cemetery and no records.  Camus writes that there is no history, but Conde contradicts this, finding Camus’ own novel a history of his past.  She asks, ‘how can a lack of recordkeeping condition a life’, and seems to find an answer in oral traditions, and personal stories.  How we as archivists record these lives and stories seems to be another question, to which no answer is returned.

Shannon Faulkhead, writing of her PhD research into ‘Narratives of Koorie Victoria’ seems to provide one response, in ‘connecting through records’.  The Aboriginal people of Victoria, the Koorie, are at once both described in and largely excluded from, conventional histories of colonial settlement, as other Aboriginal people throughout Australia.  Faulkhead discusses how she accessed information about Koorie people using both oral traditions and traditional written archives, using what she calls ‘hunting and gathering’, and the way in which different communities privilege or authorise certain types of information over others.  She discusses the role of archival Liaison Officers in providing access to information to Indigenous communities and researchers, and points to the Trust and Technology project at Monash University  Finally, she points out that forgetting is as important a part of creating narrative and memory as remembering is.  While many archivists are enthusiastic destroyers of copies and ephemera, there remains always the concern about authenticity, integrity and, dare I say it, significance which lies at the heart of archival appraisal, and which will be in tension with ideas of forgetting and reinvention of self and society that Faulkhead discusses.

From silence, to forgetting, to YouTube.  Leisa Gibbons’ article, ‘Testing the continuum’, takes continuum theory to new levels as she looks at digital cultural material such as YouTube videos and social networking.  Drawing on Frank Upward’s Cultural Heritage Continuum model, Gibbons posits YouTube as existing in the fourth dimension of the model, where information is disseminated and pluralised.  Having identified it as such, she looked at three cultural collections to see how they were collecting and managing YouTube content, and whether the pluralised context was able to maintained and managed.  While institutions were able to maintain content, the social context continues to be a challenge.

I’ve just spent some time working on the Australian Bureau of Statistics survey on the new Cultural collections statistics collection, so Danielle Wickman’s article ‘Measuring performance or performing measurements?…’ rang a few bells for me.  Danielle looked at the PARBICA Recordkeeping for Good Governance Toolkit, which has been developed by the National Archives of Australia, PARBICA and Archives New Zealand.  It provides models and templates for policies, file titling and appraisal and was funded, in part by AusAid.  Funding bodies, not unnaturally, ask for evidence that their money has been well spent and Danielle looked at the way in which the NAA and other bodies looked for information to support their case.  She found that although it was possible to demonstrate that the Toolkit was a useful product, the measurements provided did not necessarily demonstrate that it was well used, or had the impacts on recordkeeping that were envisaged.  She asked the crucial question, ‘… what is that we really want to measure anyway?’.  From this point on, Danielle discusses the differences between outputs and outcomes, and demonstrates that outcome measurements may be more meaningful. She provides examples of ways in which recordkeeping outcomes might be measured, including a British Standard for performance management related to ISO 15489, but also identifies that measuring outcomes can be difficult to do.  Nevertheless, Danielle believes that measuring and evaluating our performance will assist us in ‘demontrat[ing] more conclusively our relevance to government and society…’

Finally, Liauw Toong Tjek’s case study, ‘Surabaya memory: representing minority voices in the digital history of the city’, returns to the themes of this volume of alternative archives and means of access.  Surabaya Memory is an online intitiative which started in 2001 and is still going strong.  The website documents the people, culture and architecture of Surabaya, and helps to provide identity to minority groups on Surabaya and within Indonesia.


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Archivist, historian, avid reader

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