Robyn Holmes
Publication date: 
Friday, 25 October, 2013

Presented by Robyn Holmes to the Australian Society of Archivists 2013 Conference: Archives - The Future!

Session Background

The replacement of analogue with digital technology and the rise of new technologies have been both friend and enemy of records and archives. The mind-boggling quantity of content in play (e.g. 90 billion photos on Facebook alone) combined with the falling cost of storage represent one of innumerable contradictory trends.

It is now far more difficult than 30 years ago to control the creation, capture, documentation, security and integrity of records, yet the fundamental issue of archival appraisal remains.  On the other hand, new processes tools and services such as digitization, crowd sourcing, e-research, web 2.0 collaboration, online publication and ingesting have helped enable archival institutions and archival programs to be more efficient, known, informed and manageable.

If the digital underpinning of everything today is both problem and solution, how in fact should archivists and recordkeepers respond? What is to happen to all that which is not digitised and unlikely to ever be digitised? One doesn’t have to be a genius to realise that answers start with a better understanding of what is, and might be, happening. So where can we look for help with reading the future, with the world already awash with former Next Big Things?

Session Speakers

Robyn Holmes:  Senior Curator, Pictures & Manuscripts, NLA

We have been asked to comment on reading and planning our future as archival organisations and professionals confronted by the challenges of the overwhelming mass of digital documentation, content and information and the pace of ever changing digital technology. I cannot begin to predict social and business trends 20 years hence, any more than Antony or any of us can, though I remain more optimistic about the future of libraries and archives than he suggests.

Far from concluding that people have an obsessive and passive relationship to technology, I see daily evidence of the reverse, as we open and democratise our research libraries, archives, repositories and tools for e-learning and scholarship to so many more people through digital means. We speak of ‘to google, to tweet, to facebook, to trove, to interact’: active verbs representing both individual and collective human activity. Sure, online has replaced the conversations in our back-yard: but vast masses of people are seeking dynamic, active, enriching, collaborative and social human experiences online, just as they always have in their physical spaces.

Similarly, from all the statistics and impact we are measuring, people in increasing numbers are seeking to engage with the special and the unique collections of which we are custodians:  differentiating these sources of knowledge from the vast world of ubiquitous information as a means to enrich their experience or understanding. So, in the context of our kind of organisations, digital technology seemingly remains in the service of the human spirit, the means and not the end to discovery and wonder. The opportunity that the digital presents for people to discover, access, make choices and create new meanings from the mind-boggling morass of data and information gives me hope in the future for our roles as stewards and organisers of the records, collections and artefacts that document our living culture, our past and our future.  

To find some guidance and direction for my thinking, I have sought lessons from history and drawn on an analogy from the discipline in which I was trained: music. By a century ago, Western music tonality had reached breaking point, with the very fundaments, axes and elements of the musical system losing their differentiated value and system of hierarchy. All tonal possibilities were equally available to the composer: but such freedom, as Igor Stravinsky famously asserted, represents no freedom at all. Rather, he said, we must impose our own order and constraint, drawing on the values, foundations and traditions passed down to us!  He recalled this experience in 6 famous lectures at Harvard in 1947:

Will I ... have to lose myself in this abyss of freedom? What shall I cling to in order to escape the dizziness that seizes me before the virtuality of this infinitude? ...What delivers me from the anguish into which an unrestricted freedom plunges me is the fact that I am always able to turn immediately to the [very] concrete [elements] that are question. I have no use for a theoretical freedom. Let me have something finite, definite!... In art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation...The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit. 

He continues: 

Tradition is entirely different from habit, even from excellent habit, for habit is by definition an unconscious acquisition and tends to become mechanical, whereas tradition results from a conscious and deliberate acceptance. A real tradition is not the relic of a past irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present. Far from implying the repetition of what has been, tradition presupposes the reality of what endures. It appears as an heirloom, a heritage that one receives on condition of making it bear fruit before passing it on to one's descendants.

So, I want us to refocus on the values inherent in archiving that have the authority of a ‘real tradition’: not the practices, however excellent, that form our archiving habits, but those ‘resisting foundations’ that endure and will continue to animate the future. We must ask ourselves a different set of questions that go to the heart of our foundations:

Why are the records of our society valuable? Do we believe that the documents and records our culture creates have value intrinsically? Does that value justify the cost and the habits of appraising, arranging, describing, preserving and storing them, or do we retain records "just in case" someone might need them?   Do they have value as records regardless of what is in them?  Or does a record have value only because of its content, whether a profound artistic truth or a record of corrupt behaviour?

If we approach the future from the viewpoint of the question ‘What is the value of a record?’, then the information and technology explosion is irrelevant.  Those concepts relate to how much information we are creating and how we create and store it, and how much we choose to preserve – our habits – but they DON'T relate to the VALUE and meaning of the record – our tradition.

And from this perspective flows a second set of questions:

Who gives the record its value and meaning? I would argue, those who can and do use the record. If our society assumes that there is value in our records, how do we manage this and measure this ‘use’ value? How can we use technology in our service to measure this kind of impact? Does this give us a lead as to how to reanimate a sustained value of the archival tradition into the future? 

Perhaps, indeed, when faced with an infinitude of digital content and possibilities, people will need us even more as their ‘resisting foundation’: providing the limits,  the means of order and constraint, the pathways to anchor themselves and create meaning from a sea of records and knowledge. Our capacity to sort, organise, create or document structures within the morass of documentation and records of our culture, whether digital or not, becomes MORE and not less valuable.  Just that the changing scale, pace, form and content means that our habits of how we physically and intellectually control such records may well need to be different. But who is best poised to problem solve, design and effect such changes of habits? We ourselves are.

But while we can anchor and organise, while we can provide gravitational axes or tools to help people create sense and meaning out of the information mass, we cannot assume to know how they will interact with it, nor direct their information needs and journeys by our habits. So, we must provide both the infrastructure and adaptive, malleable and flexible means for people to navigate and create their own journeys: the means to engage, select, access what they want and share, for their purposes, and not for ours.

Far from commercialism and consumerism, we can provide ‘non-commodity’ value into the future that Antony describes where information is increasingly becoming a commodity.  For it is the human value and human activity in  what we acquire, collect, make available and organise where the value resides: in doing so, we revalue the record, in so much as it continues to represent human endeavour. What we have to learn to do anew is our stewardship in a digital world, where we continue to preserve and make our records organised and accessible but allow people to create order, value and meaning through long-term access.  If we focus on the why, that is where we will find meaningful answers to our habits, and we ourselves can find the answers and solutions to the what, the how and how much we keep. In doing so, we will keep our ‘real tradition’ alive.