December 2010 - January 2011

The Nation Reviewed

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By Christine Kenneally
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“That’s red tape,” said Kate Cumming, a senior project officer at New South Wales State Records, pointing at a 20-centimetre high spool of thin white ribbon. Unravelled, it would run for half a kilometre. “That’s what we use to wrap records up.” The tape sat on a table with other tools of the archivist’s trade. Storing paper requires a specialised kit developed through brutal experience. Cumming’s colleague Cassie Findlay pointed to a box of plastic paperclips in front of the tape. Metal clips rust and rust ruins the paper, she explained. In addition, archivists often stab themselves with the pointy ones, and then there is blood as well as rust to clean.

It wasn’t that long ago that most people believed the digitisation of files would create a completely paperless office, obviating the need for archivists and their tools. This has not come to pass. In the Australian government, for example, agencies continue to produce mountains of paper, and there’s an archival backlog that would stretch to almost 200 kilometres if laid out. The production of digitally born records, like websites, has also gone from zero to many terabytes. Rather than making the nation’s record keepers obsolete, the digital revolution has greatly increased their workload. In fact, in the last 20 years, the role of the archivist has fundamentally changed: it used to be that the archivist’s raison d’être was to carefully preserve, now one of their most important jobs is to throw away.

I spoke to Cumming and Findlay on a grey, rainy day early in the Melbourne spring when the Australian Society of Archivists met to discuss the state of their profession. In a group of muted winter wardrobes and a higher than average number of spectacles and shawls, Cumming wore a stylish, fitted dress with a wide leather belt and Findlay sported skinny pants with a long necklace of chunky modern beads. In the complicated machinery of the NSW government, part of their job is to save records before they go missing. They must also be clever about their methods of classification and storage. Talking to the two women feels like a conversation with some of the friendlier detectives from Law & Order. They are warm and deeply knowledgeable but there’s something a little piercing about their intelligence as well.

The internet revolution has meant, they told me, that premiers and prime ministers speak directly to citizens in a way never before imagined. But the tools that have made it easier for leaders to connect with the people have also put the messages themselves at risk. Websites, blog posts, videos and photos may come and go online in an instant, and there is often no agreed upon method or location for storing them. In 2009, when then premier of NSW, Nathan Rees, suddenly left government, his website disappeared. “As far as the new administration was concerned,” said Findlay, “he was gone.” So Findlay had to knock on doors, make calls and fight to save the digital records from his time in office, such as his YouTube videos and even his Tweets. While there is a certain dissonance in imagining Tweets such as “Opening Blacktown City Festival,” 5.54 pm, 29 May and “Go Eels!” 12.04 am, 25 September stored alongside convict indents from 1787, the point for the archivist is that they are a record of how government does what it does. Rees was the first Tweeting premier, said Findlay, and “future generations will have an expectation that they can find a trace of a leader of New South Wales.” Still, for many states, there is no good place to keep digitally born records. Despite the fact that each of Australia’s state governments has been online for more than ten years, archivists are fighting for funds to create a digital archive. Currently, only the federal government and Victoria’s state government have one.

Watching records vanish without a trace is an archivist’s nightmare but in these digital times it is equally frightening to watch them endlessly accumulate. Everyone with access to a computer produces emails, Facebook entries, documents and digital photographs – in ever increasing number. Yet the amount we create is completely out of balance with how much we delete. I spoke to Adrian Cunningham from the National Archives of Australia, a lean, energetic man in his forties, who believes this is the biggest problem for archivists today. “People think digital storage is cheap,” he said. “But that means they are just throwing records into dump buckets. The problem is that one day you are not going to be able to find anything in the bucket, and then all of it will be thrown out indiscriminately.”

The pernicious multiplication of records is known to archivists as ‘versionitis’. People generate multiple drafts of the same document, keeping all of them as they go. Of course, academics have spent entire careers poring over the changing versions of works, such as Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, but when every government functionary creates several slightly different copies of the same document, it adds up fast. “There are data slag heaps accumulating everywhere,” said Cunningham. This means archivists must now be involved in the production of records, helping users control proliferation before it gets out of hand. “We are no longer passive end-of-lifecycle collectors, we are engaged in the front-end of record keeping,” said Cunningham. This is tricky for a number of reasons, not least the fact that working with people has not traditionally been a strong part of an archivist’s role. Cumming and Findlay surveyed a large group of IT staff about their experience of archivists; traits such as “controlling”, “perfectionist” and “demanding” came up a lot. “It’s true,” said Findlay. “We’ve been asking too much. We’ve been too detailed.”

It’s not just Australian archives that are endangered, Australian archivists may be as well. In contrast to the US and the UK, where hundreds of people apply for a single job, employers in Australia may not get any applicants. One of the problems, according to Sue McKemmish, chair of archival systems at Monash University, is that Australian universities now charge up to $30,000 for postgraduate degrees in archiving; with no student loans available, many capable people cannot afford the training.

It isn’t just the past at risk, the present is as well. There is a clear connection between good record keeping and accountable governments. At the conference, Cunningham called for a “game-changer – an iconoclast who is not scared to have a go at sacred cows and upset the established order”. A fan of twentieth-century music, he talked about Elvis Presley and the Sex Pistols. Once they came along, he said, the musical world was never the same. “It’s nice to think there may be a Johnny Rotten of archives out there, too.”

Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is the author of The Ghosts of the Orphanage and is now writing a book about the orphanage experience for Public Affairs and Hachette Australia. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate and New Scientist.


Cover: December 2010 - January 2011
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