The digital cliff

Protecting the National Archives of Australia
by
June 2021, no. 432

The digital cliff

Protecting the National Archives of Australia
by
June 2021, no. 432

Many readers will recall reports of the fire in April 2021 that damaged the University of Cape Town’s library, which, among other riches, housed invaluable collections of unique manuscripts and personal papers, and one of the most extensive African film collections in the world. The extent of the damage is still being assessed. Even worse, the fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in July 2018 consumed twenty million objects, including unique documents, the oldest human remains ever found in Brazil, and audio recordings and documents of extinct indigenous languages.

Irreplaceable records may also be lost simply because of an inability or unwillingness to protect fragile items before they deteriorate to the point of loss. This is the situation we currently face in Australia, despite National Archives that are among the finest in the world in terms of completeness and the skills of their staff.

Archives all over the world are confronting similar problems of managing rapidly increasing digital records while preserving vast print, oral, and other records in different, often fragile formats. They all need the government financial support necessary to do this securely and durably. Ours are no exception.

While the ‘National Archives’ conjures up a vision of a repository of print-based official government records steadily made accessible on January 1 every year, it also holds a treasure trove of riches pertaining to the lives of all Australians in forms ranging from film and posters to private letters and personal objects. It is a repository of unique and startling diversity, the property of all Australians.

The painful challenge is that so many of these priceless items are on acetate film or magnetic tapes that deteriorate beyond rescue or are in digital forms about to be obsolete and fall off what archivists call the ‘digital cliff’. In the words of Professor Michelle Arrow from Macquarie University, ‘There’s no back-up copy of these documents sitting in another country’s National Archives. They aren’t on Google, or YouTube.’ 

In April 2019, David Tune, former secretary of the Department of Finance, commenced a ‘functional and efficiency review of the National Archives of Australia, in particular of its ‘capacity and capability to … receive, secure, store and preserve government information in the digital age … preserve and digitise at-risk collections; and perform its functions and deliver services to the Australian Government and the Australian people.’ Tune’s 100-page report is a model of its type and includes twenty key recommendations. He was careful not to call simply for more funding, even though he pointed out that, like all Commonwealth agencies, the Archives have been pared back to the bone by decades of ‘efficiency dividends’. In 2013, the Archives had about 430 staff; today it has about 300. (There are similar tales one could tell about other cultural institutions, from the National Library to the National Film and Sound Archive.) Instead, Tune made fundamental structural proposals about better record-keeping practices for the rapidly increasing digital records of national government and administration. There were also controversial proposals for user-pays income generation.

But Tune was particularly bothered by two urgent matters of wider public interest. First, in his words, ‘an issue of immediate importance is the deterioration of many records held in the Archives. Limited capacity in the Archives means that many records (in a variety of forms) will be lost if action is not taken. As such, the National Archives could potentially be in breach of [the Archives Act] due to unauthorised loss of records.’ A specific recommendation was that $67.7 million must be allocated for urgent preservation across seven years.

Second, Tune highlighted the Archives’ current inability to respond to requests for records within reasonable time, a bugbear of many historians. Delays of more than five years before researchers hear the results of their requests for access are now commonplace, as the Archives are excruciatingly cautious about processing new material. There is even a reluctance for thesis supervisors to recommend research topics that might draw on archival records, for fear that it would not be possible for students to complete a thesis in a timely manner.

Tune submitted his review to Attorney-General Christian Porter in January 2020. It was not until March 2021, however, that Amanda Stoker, Assistant Minister to the new Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, released the findings of the review. She has undertaken to respond to the review this year.

Studying our past and telling our stories is critical to our sense of belonging, to recovering hidden and awkward histories, and to creating our shared future. Our National Archives are a core resource for these stories as well as the indispensable repository of official records. We cannot afford to compromise on which records are kept or on the quality of their maintenance. The Tune review deserves thorough consideration; its urgent matters require prompt remediation.

 

Update

A specific recommendation of the Tune report was that the Commonwealth Government make an emergency allocation of $67.7 million across seven years to preserve the most at-risk items in the National Archives. The budget allocation announced on 11 May was $700,000, about one per cent of the total recommended. The Archives have now turned to crowd funding and other appeals for donations. See https://www.naa.gov.au/about-us/support-us

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