With the news (archives and records google group; archiveslive) that a review into whether the State Records South Australia and State Library of SA should be combined, questions about convergence, assimilation and collaboration are once again on the Australian archival agenda.
In her PhD thesis (http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/175518829?selectedversion=NBD50509505), Leith Robinson identified convergence as being about the physical and virtual co- location of ‘memory institutions’. She identified that physical convergence, at local government level, has some benefits for the community, although the benefits to the converged entities was somewhat more problematic. Smaller institutions suffered from a loss of identity and funding, with simplified services and challenges to different professional approaches to collection information. As Robinson notes, archivists have generally not been as supportive of the convergence trope as libraries, quoting past ASA President, Jackie Bettington’s, concerns about the ‘dumbing down’ of the archival profession.
In a comment on the ArchivesLive forum, James Lowry identifies the principal problem with the ‘memory institution’ ideology, in a way which reinforces Bettington’s concerns:
‘Collaboration’ allows archives and libraries to share technical expertise and infrastructure, but ‘convergence’ (mergers), especially with cultural institutions rather than accountability institutions, often damage the position of the archives and always sends the wrong message to government: that the archives are a cultural heritage institution only and not policy-makers with administratively significant work to do in supporting government efficiency and openness.
He points to the Library and Archives Canada as an example where ‘convergence’ has not been as smooth as might otherwise be suggested - http://exlibris.pbworks.com/w/page/63815458/Timeline%20on%20Library%20and%20Archives%20Canada%20Service%20Decline%20after%202004
These concerns are not new – in the 1994 Commission on Government review in Western Australia, specified matter 9 looked specifically at the question of an independent archives, as a separate entity from the State Library in which it had been based for some fifty years (http://www.slp.wa.gov.au/legislation/statutes.nsf/main_mrtitle_3172_homepage.html). In considering the matter, the Commission pointed out that:
An overwhelming majority of the submissions we received were critical of the proposed
retention of the PRO within the library structure. This was seen to detract from true
independence. Submissions came from professional associations allied with the different
aspects of record management including librarians, records managers and archivists.
Individuals, as well as academics, government agencies and others with a particular
interest in the topic, made formal submissions. A similar response was encountered at the
public hearings and seminars we conducted…
Echoing the Robinson’s findings that smaller institutions suffer when merged with the larger, the Commission found:
• the PRO will have to constantly compete with a larger agency (LISWA) and may be
marginalised and resource starved;
and, again echoing Bettington and Lowry:
• it is inappropriate to separate the operational and regulatory functions of an archives
authority because of the need to have some concentration of specialised skills;
In looking at other jurisdictions in which the Library and Archives appear to be combined, it is noted that these are shared organisationally, rather than subordinate of the one within the other.
The Tasmania Archives and Heritage Office forms part of the Tasmanian LINC service. The Archivist, who is appointed by the Minister, has sole responsibility for the archives and recordkeeping regime, and does not answer to a separate body, such as the State Records Commission. The Archives are responsible for both State and private archives, the latter being handed to the Archivist via the State Library Board.
New Zealand Archives and Libraries – are merged within the Department of Internal Affairs but are managed as independent entities within the Department.
Generally, though, archival institutions are managed as independent entities. An alternative model might be that of the National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA), which encompasses not just the archives, but also current information needs, through the Office of Public Sector Information and Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. TNA also has responsibility for private archives.
In looking at questions of convergence, perhaps we need to consider other agencies and organisations, other than ‘memory instituions’. There is no reason, for example, why a State archives could not be associated with a Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, open Government body or publisher, or the national archives with a metadata registration body (e.g. the NAA and ANDS) or similar. Perhaps, rather than resisting assimilation, we should be actively seeking alternative institutions and organisations with whom the other roles of the archives resonate.