Archive failure

Today, on the Australian Archives and Records google groupChris Hurley alerted us to the recent report from British Columbia’s Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham – A failure to archive: recommendations to modernize records management in British Columbia (

In reading the report, I have to confess to lots of moments of deja vu. It’s just over ten years since my own state’s archive stopped taking transfers; the budgets are similar, as is the per capita spend (although…I think BC’s archivists are possibly slacking – SROWA provides access and does retention and disposal schedules too). But the reason I wanted to write about this report is because it speaks to many current archival challenges, using the lens of the British Columbia archives to explore them.

Ms Denham opens with a brief reference to her own archival training and background, and it’s good to see an archivist playing at such a high level in information governance  and access to information (she has a Master’s degree in archives administration from UBC).  She highlights the role of archives as institutional memory, but also weaves in the need for good recordkeeping to support freedom of information – ‘Without the proper creation and management of records, any statutory right of access to records will prove unenforceable in practice.”

Ms Denham looks at the question of archives transfers and the role of archives in providing access to information. – “As public archives are often the sole reliable record of government action and decision-making, they play an essential role in our society and system of government. Through the creation and preservation of government records, archives sustain society’s cultural and historical identity, help preserve our rights and obligations and define our sovereignty.

One of the lessons that I took from the document was the question of charging for archive transfers. Ms Denham found that the fee charged for archive transfers (a whopping $454 per box, upfront; or 67 years at commercial storage rates of $6.72 per box per annum) discouraged organisations from transferring. The fee, of course, was based on costs for description and preservation as well as storage, but organisations generally compare storage to storage and do not recognise the value adding tasks. I have to wonder if a small one off fee, for transfer, and then annual ‘maintenance’ fees would have been more palatable.

From access to archives and costs of transferring and maintaining archives, the report then moves on to the challenge of digital archives.  Ms Denham describes a tortuous path, in which born digital records are printed to paper, ready for transfer to the archives, at which point they would then be scanned (!) and copied to microfilm.  While i like the idea of a microfilm backup (either in ascii, images or , my favourite, barcode stripes or dots –  ioioiiiooo), why not just dump the files straight to film? But a digital archive needs more than a back up regime :

It makes no sense to build a transfer infrastructure without a repository to store those files, and it makes no sense to build a repository without an infrastructure to enable the transfer of those files.

An electronic archiving infrastructure must preserve the authenticity and reliability of a record. The identity, content, future readability, and metadata of a digital record must be retained in order for the record to be reliable and verifiably authentic. In other words, an archive must be able to prove that a particular electronic record, as accessed at a point in time, is the same record with the same content as when it was created.

Finally, Ms Denham writes of the need for up to date archives legislation – BC’s is from 1936! This last rang bells for me following the Perth NAA consultative forum, also today, at which David Fricker said that the NAA was looking at its 1983 legislation and, in particular, at definitions of a ‘record’ which were not technologically dependent.  Ms Denham speaks not just of the need to identify records and thus archives, but also of the need to ensure that decisions are properly documented:

This “duty to document” should also be a component of the new information management legislation. I think there is general agreement about the need for government to record its key decisions, and how it arrived at and implemented them. It is only with the creation and preservation of adequate documentation of action and decision-making that access to information regimes and public archives can be effective.

I could not agree more.







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Archivist, historian, avid reader

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