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A Matter of Facts
The Value of Evidence in an Information Age
Talks / Lecture
The Value of Evidence in an Information Age
18 October 2019
Dr Laura Millar, independent consultant and scholar in records, archives, and information management, discussed her new publication A Matter of Facts: the Value of Evidence in an Information Age.
The safeguarding of authentic facts is essential, especially in this disruptive Orwellian age, where digital technologies have opened the door to a post-truth world in which “alternative facts” can be so easily accepted as valid.
As Dr. Millar argues in her book, because facts matter, evidence matters. In her talk, she made the case that authentic and accurate records, archives, data, and other sources of documentary proof are crucial in supporting and fostering a society that is respectful, democratic, and self-aware.
Dr Millar has consulted with governments, universities, professional associations, and other agencies around the world, from advising national governments on electronic records management to consulting with aboriginal communities on the preservation of indigenous sources of evidence. She is the author of several award-winning publications and has taught in several universities in Canada and internationally.
Matter of Facts with Dr Laura Millar
*Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Laura Millar (L)
*Location: National Library of Australia
M: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and I’m actually smiling here because when this podium was designed I insisted that it be suitable for people who are only five feet tall and I’ve arrived this morning and found they’ve given me another step up. I don’t know if that’s for me or for you, Laura, but I feel tall all of a sudden. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia whether you’re here with us in person or joining us via the live Facebook feed. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres and it’s my privilege to be the Director General of the National Library of Australia.
As we begin I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call our home and on which we do our work.
I was delighted when asked to open this lecture as it’s allowed me a now rare opportunity to return to my origins in working with and managing archival records. I do not think you ever stop being an archivist but you do take the skills with you into different contexts. It’s nice to dip back in occasionally especially with a publication as thoughtful as that of Dr Laura Millar’s, A Matter of Facts, the value of evidence in an information age and her exploration of the role of everyone in ensuring the authenticity and value of evidence in today’s society.
The digital challenge for archivists and librarians, archives and libraries is a large one and it’s one that requires immediate and ongoing action as well as resources required to deliver that action. As Laura says we can’t do it alone, we need the community to engage with issues of authenticity but we also must work with institutions and governments to ensure that the requirements of ensuring an authentic record as evidence are valued and implemented.
This may be by visiting archives and libraries, ensuring your own records are managed appropriately or asking us about the evidentiary nature of the materials in our care. It could also be about asking about our decisions about selection and retention which have a profound influence on what evidence is available for the future. As I’ve said many times to scholars over my career you do need to trust us but not trust us too much. I’m often really surprised at the scholarly users of our collections who very rarely ask about us about what is not in our collections, what we’ve selected out. They take what we do as a matter of faith and I don’t think they should.
Dr Laura Millar has been a consultant in archives, records and information management and an independent scholar for more than 35 years. She’s taught for many years in the fields of information, records and archives management as well as in the areas of editing and publishing, building on her Masters of Archival Studies from the University of British Columbia in Canada and her PhD in archives studies from University College, London. She has worked with governments, universities, colleges, professional associations, non-profit organisations and national and state governments in Canada, the United States, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Hong Kong and Zambia. That makes me feel exhausted, how did you do that in 35 years?
Laura’s work has ranged from helping governments establish policies to manage digital evidence to consulting with first nation’s communities in the Arctic in Canada for methods for preserving indigenous sources of evidence to providing advice on electronic records management to international agencies.
Laura identifies the goals of her professional work as to protect trustworthy sources of evidence so that agencies remain accountable, people’s rights are protected, organisations can uphold their responsibilities and communities have access to the documentary touchstones that allow them to shape identities and share memories.
She’s the author of dozens of publications and presentations including The Story Behind the Book, preserving authors’ and publishers’ archives – that would be a favourite for me – published by Simon Fraser University in Canada in 2009 and Archives, Principles and Practices, the second edition of which was published by Facet Publishing in 2017.
Laura and her husband live in the community of Robert’s Creek on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast and I don’t know if you’ve ever visited Australia’s Sunshine Coast in Queensland, it’s a bit different, I think.
Laura’s been a regular visitor to Australia and to its various libraries and archives. During her last visit to Australia in December last year we both were attendees at the Australian UNESCO Memory of the World Summit on documenting Australian society where Laura delivered a paper entitled Pulling Strings, the struggle to document Canadian society.
Please join me in welcoming Dr Laura Millar back to Canberra and to the National Library of Australia as she discusses the value of evidence in an information age.
L: Thank you very much and indeed I’m only five feet tall so yay for podia. Thank you very much and it’s delightful to be here. I want to extend my thanks to everyone at the National Library for offering me the chance to speak to you today, to Emma Jolley particularly for co-ordinating my visit. I also want to thank the National Library and the National Archives of Australia and the Australian War Museum who all hosted me last year when I came to visit to do some research in relation to this book. It was extremely helpful as I finalised the manuscript.
I’m going to start with two apologies even though I was always taught never apologise, never explain. The first apology is that I am bringing a good old-fashioned Canadian head cold so I have got a bit of a scratchy throat and I apologise if I sound a little bit less than dulcet in my tones. The other apology is that I have to confess to being an American. I’m an American by birth, I came to Canada as a child of Canadian parents and I lived in Canada from the age of 14. I consider myself a Canadian but in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected I suddenly found my American hackles rising and I felt really very concerned about a country that I had not been so associated with for much of my life even though my brother still lives on the other side of the border and for many years would scold me for having made a mistake staying in Canada. He now wants me to help him get his Canadian passport renewed.
So I have written this book for an American publisher with an American view in part but not in total because I have travelled around the world and I have worked around the world and I think it’s very important to look at these issues that I address in my book around the world. But a lot of the examples have to do with the United States so you will hear the name of Donald Trump once or twice today. What I hope to convey is however one feels about politics the issue of evidence if not a political issue any more than the environment is a political issue. It is an issue of the accountability and trustworthiness of our societies and it doesn’t matter whatever political strike we have we should care about our environment and we should care about our evidence.
I think it’s increasingly clear we have an environmental crisis on our hands, we are not moving fast enough to slow the damage but at the same time I think we face another crisis, an evidence crisis. Ultimately if we don’t address the climate change we won’t have to worry about evidence but I want to care today and talk today about why I think evidence is crucially important to an accountable and trustworthy society, especially in an age of fake news, alternative facts, manipulated records, hacked databases and stolen identities.
So what I want to do is talk to you a bit about the ideas I raised in my book, I want to leave time at the end for questions and discussions and your ideas and experiences with truth, facts and evidence in a digital age.
Let’s start with the idea of truth. People talk a lot about truth, what is truth? We live in a post-truth world, a postmodern world. I think really we live in what I might call a post postmodern age or a post-trust age. I think the discussions around postmodernism are fascinating. I think the idea that truth is relative, that we all bring our own perspectives to everything, that there is no one objective reality is fair enough as far as it goes. I might read a novel or see a film or look at a sculpture and see something completely different from what you see.
But I think we’ve taken a step beyond that now, we’ve gone from a town when we recognise the existence of bias to a time when we reject the existence of truth. There is such a thing as objective truth and you might not see an objective truth in an artistic creation but you should see it in documentary evidence. When people reject government reports as lies, when they reject scientific studies as opinions and when they reject media reports as fake news they have gone far beyond what I think is an interesting academic argument about postmodernism. As the philosopher, Lee McIntyre argued, it’s all fun and games to attack truth in the Academy but what happens when one’s tactics leak out into the hands of science deniers and conspiracy theorists or thin-skinned politicians who insist their instincts are better than any evidence?
Now you may recall in 2018 Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who’s getting a lot of press these days, was in an argument with Chuck Todd on NBC about whether or not Trump should testify before the Muller inquiry and Giuliani said when you tell me Trump should testify because he’s going to tell the truth so he shouldn't worry well that’s silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth, it’s not the truth. When the journalist pushed at him Giuliani shot back and said truth isn’t truth. The fact is Giuliani’s right, truth isn’t truth. When we talk about truth we can talk about many different things but when we talk about a personal truth and we go back to the origins of the word true it doesn’t mean accurate, it means loyal, faithful, devoted. It means we are true to each other, true to our cause, true to ourselves. So truth can be personal and my truth isn’t always your truth.
So for example you may say that your truth is that you love Game of Thrones. My truth may be that I love Downton Abbey. Who can argue against those? There is no argument that there is a factual basis for whether I’m correct or not. That is my preference so I can call it my truth – I don’t happen to like that phrase, my truth, but there you go.
We look back to when Bill Clinton got in trouble and was impeached and claimed he did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. He was telling the truth because he had an Old Testament version of what he thought sexual relations meant. It was true. But where’s the fact behind the truth?
So we have these relative truths. Truth isn’t truth but proof is proof. So when we’re talking about truth in a post-truth age we have to go to the next step, we need facts. So then we have to say where are the facts? That’s where we’re in the crisis today because the facts are living in the digital world and we are overwhelmed with data. Now I’m going to come back to data but I want to stop and say let us just look at the deluge we’re facing which is one of the reasons that we have this breakdown in the side of objective truth, is that everybody has data points that they can turn to. They’re drowning us in all of these different discrete pieces of information.
We are drowning, I believe, in digital data and let me cite technology expert, Bernard Marr, who says that people around the world generate 16 million text messages, 156 million emails and one trillion photographs every day. That is 2.5 quintillion bytes of data whirling around the globe every day. So if you’ve got all that happening how can you come up with one source of truth when you’ve got all of that whirling around?
Now I don’t even know what a quintillion is. I failed math in grade 5 and it got worse from there but one quintillion is one with 18 zeroes after it so what I did is I called up a couple of friends of mine and I said help me do the math here. I said if you had 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day what is that? They said well its 2.6 billion gigabytes a day, dummy. Okay, great. So then that means we generate 9.12 billion gigabytes of data every year. I don’t know what that means, I don’t understand what that means. But I was watching television and somebody was celebrating the fact that the Hubble telescope was 30 years old and they said guess what? The Hubble telescope sends back 910 gigabytes a year back to earth, 17.5 gigabytes of raw data a week.
Now it was the 910 I liked ‘cause it sounded awfully close to 912 and I thought I bet I can do some math around that. I’ve got 912 billion gigabytes of data going around the world in a year, 910 gigabytes the Hubble telescope can send back to earth. I’m trying to figure out how much data we’re actually dealing with. How long would it take for me to send that one year’s worth of data back to earth if I used the Hubble telescope? I did the math, I checked with my physics friends and it said one billion years, one million millennia, 10 million centuries. Ten million centuries to send one year’s worth of data that we create on this planet back to earth from the Hubble telescope. No wonder we can’t agree on one truth when we got all of that whirling around us.
Now my physics friend I asked about this, he said but Laura, that’s a really dumb analogy because the Hubble telescope’s old. We’ve got faster stuff now, we can move it way faster now and I went home and I thought about it and I said to my husband, I thought what do you think? He smiled and he says yeah, we got faster cars too. Well fat lot of good that’s done us. We can build bigger and better technology. There is something called the Cornucopia paradigm which is that if we just keep building better it will move faster and everything will work itself out.
I think what we have to do is say that this pace is unsustainable. If we are going to come into some sort of evidence-based truth we cannot keep drowning in the data that we are drowning ourselves in. So let me come back then to where do we go for the facts then in this world of swirling data if we want to try to link truth with facts and evidence?
Now the area I live in Vancouver near the Vancouver Art Gallery is in a little small pocket of Canada that never ever sees snow. Well maybe once a year we see about five flakes, we panic, we call the police, we say what do we do? I always say my biggest weather-related crisis is that I might have to put socks on when I go outside. But in 2008 I took this picture outside of my favourite wine bar in Vancouver because it snowed, it snowed big time, shut the city down for about a week. We marvel and then we panic. That’s sort of par for the course for a British Columbian in my part of the world.
So is it true that it snowed in 2008? Yeah, I took a picture. It’s true, I can prove that was taken at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I can prove it was taken in 2008 because I have my metadata. My photograph provides evidence. So yeah, it snowed, it’s true. I have the fact, the statement shown by the evidence, the photograph. So who cares? What matters is when somebody holds up this picture and says well there is no climate emergency, there’s no global warming, it snowed, what’s the problem?
Now a photograph of a single snowfall is a certain form of proof, absolutely, it is a piece of evidence. But it’s a lesser form of proof than an accumulation of evidence that might come from climate scientists, from ice core samples, from long-range temperature measurements, from documentation about weather patterns. Those are stronger sources of proof than my one photograph so in those billions and billions and quintillions of data floating around the earth are some elements of data that have evidential value and need to be protected as evidence.
We need that evidence and we need that if we’re going to have well-grounded statements of fact. The fact is it does snow, the photograph shows proof. The fact is there is climate change and global warming, my photograph is not adequate proof of that. If we want an evidence-based truth, the truth that there is global warming we need more than just a single photograph, we need more substantial sources of evidence.
So I'm laying the groundwork for an argument that we really need to value evidence and we need to look at how we talk about it and how we protect it. But these are the definitions that I'm working with. An evidence-based truth as opposed to a personal truth is a conclusion or perspective reached as a result of the analysis of an accumulation of facts. Facts are statements that can be proven by an analysis of the available evidence. An evidence is any source of information that provides demonstrable proof.
Now here and in my book I talk mostly about recorded evidence, evidence that is fixed in space and time and can be verified as authentic so that it serves as proof. The fact might be gone. The snow may be a fact. When the snow melts the only thing I have left to prove that it was there is going to be the evidence.
Now there are lots of types of evidence, there’s archaeological, physical, circumstantial, anthropological, traditional, oral, hearsay, scientific. I am focusing on recorded evidence but as I will talk about I take that concept very fluidly because I believe there are lots of ways of defining evidence that are relevant to a particular culture and society. Evidence is a social construct. We decide in our society what we want to hold up as evidence and we use it and protect it accordingly.
So one of the really crucial tasks going forward in the preservation of evidence in a global world is to recognise that my evidence in my culture and your evidence in your culture may be different but they may need to have equal grounding in our efforts to protect and preserve them, particularly important when we deal with indigenous sources of evidence.
But to tell a story of what do I mean by how important this accumulation of evidence is let me take you to Donald Trump. Now you will remember that Donald Trump had the biggest inauguration ever, remember? It was the biggest inauguration ever and Sean Spicer said so and he’ll probably win the dance competition because he is such a great person at telling us the truth. The largest audience to witness this inauguration in person and around the globe. So Spicer held forth in all of his discussions about this inauguration about why was it the biggest. Well 250,000 people could stand here and 220,000 people could stand there and 100,000 could use the transit system which is all the conditional tense, they could have but did they really?
So then the next day after Sean Spicer was given a lot of flack for saying it was the largest inauguration ever and the journalists refuted this Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer saying he’d offered a set of alternative facts and thus was born that one simply unforgettable catchphrase. But this conditional assessment of it could have been the largest was not the truth. The facts were that there was evidence that showed that it was not. There’s writers’ newsagency photographs, the one on this side was taken at 12:01pm on January 20, 2017 and the one on the other side was taken between 12:07 and 12:26pm on January 20, 2009. Photographs taken by Reuter’s newsagency, proof.
The New York Times, Getty Images and PBS Newshour all produced photographs, time-lapse images, they had analysis of comparable data, they had analysis of metropolitan transit authority usage systems that showed that two million fewer people used the system in January than were estimated. Seems to me if you’re going to have the largest crowd ever you’re not going to have fewer people using your transit system.
Of course you have to be sure that this is authentic evidence, you have to know somebody hasn’t doctored the evidence and Sean Spicer said somebody’s manipulated the evidence to prove that it wasn’t the biggest. As it turns out he was right, somebody did manipulate the evidence. In 2018, in September of 2018 the UK newspaper, The Guardian, had received a response to access to information requests showing that a photographer had edited actual official photographs of the inauguration in order to make the crowd look larger than it was. But it wasn’t a newspaper photographer who did it, it was a US Government photographer working at the behest of Sean Spicer who had been instructed by the President to change the photographs.
The more evidence we have the better our ability to confirm the truth and the evidence is always changing which is why archives are always alive, why records are always moving and why we can’t just talk about them as old and dusty and dry and static. We need constantly to keep acquiring and preserving and making sure they’re safe so that we can always keep validating these statements of fact that may or may not be true.
So what does it mean? In the end the truth matters but only if it’s based on sound and verifiable facts. Facts matter but only if we can verify them not only the moment they happen but later when the snow has melted, when the inauguration crowds have gone away, when all we have left are the photographs or the transit data or whatever it is that’s going to serve as our source of residual proof which means that evidence matters more. Without the evidence, authentic and reliable evidence, we can’t verify the facts and we can’t establish the truth.
Then you say so what? So what do we need evidence for? Well I think I’ve argued so far there is a real case for accountability. How can we hold someone to account if they’re a government official for lying if we don’t have evidence? The story of Donald Trump’s inauguration demonstrates the power of evidence to counter lies and fake news and Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts. But records, archives and data with evidential value and oral testimonies and other sources of evidence support other outcomes in society too.
I think there are three reasons that we have evidence. First is accountability, to support just and honest dealings between people, to help ensure power brokers are held to account, to prevent misdeeds, or at least to seek justice after the fact. But the second reason we need evidence is to foster a sense of identity and connection. Records and data with evidential value connect us with our forebears, they give us a broader sense of who we are, of what we believed and where we came from. The third reason we keep evidence is to help us preserve our memories and support the creation of narratives and stories which we can use to share ideas about ourselves with others now and others in the future.
Now Donald Trump and the American Government is perhaps the go-to example these days, the most recent of which this week is the discussion of the memo related to the conversation with the President of Ukraine which was put into a super-secret coded storage device even though it wasn’t supposed to go there. But there are many, many other examples from countries from Brazil to Hungary, to Ukraine, to Syria, to Hong Kong and United Kingdom. We have people in Hong Kong, protestors wearing masks in order to thwart facial recognition technology which is capturing evidence of who they are.
We have the stories in London about cameras capturing facial recognition without people knowing this is happening. You have your Australian cricket, the scandal that was identified by virtue of camera angles. In Canada, oh my goodness I know you all think that we have a wonderful Prime Minister, he wears wonderful socks and he is very good-looking, I grant you that but he was caught in a terrible scandal with the Minister of Justice when it was discovered that he was trying to get her to interfere with a judicial decision that she was supposed to remain independent.
She actually recorded the phone conversation with the Clerk of the Privy Council, something she probably shouldn’t have done but she felt her back was against the wall and she felt she needed the evidence. The Clerk says to her I'm worried about a collision with the Prime Minister because he’s pretty firm about this, it’s very important to him. What he was firm about was that he wanted her to ensure that a major construction company in Quebec not be charged with corruption and bribery even though they had already previously been found guilty of the same because they were Liberal Party supporters and in the Prime Minister’s own writing.
Now this is all not a political issue, it’s an evidential issue. The evidence says that there was something inappropriate going on. I tell you this because I didn’t come down here to slag off Australia, I know you care deeply about the law and the rule of law ‘cause as I just told Emma I just finished watching all five seasons of Rake. I know. I know how much you care about your Parliament and that blue tarp.
But next Monday in my country we go to the polls and we will see whether or not our Prime Minister is going to get a slap on the hand for having attempted to get in the way of justice and having that attempt recorded on evidence. So there are many, many stories around the world about the importance of evidence for accountability. This is perhaps today the most important reason or the most front of house reason that we see for why evidence matters. But to me it is by far not the only one and I think the questions of identity and connection are crucially important. Again you have many stories here in Australia, you have the 1995 report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, the Bringing Them Home report which turned very much around the management and protection of evidence.
We had a similar inquiry in Canada, our Truth and Reconciliation Commission which talked about the impact of recordkeeping on indigenous children who’d been sent to residential schools across the country. The goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to uncover the truth but in fact the goal was to uncover evidence and what they did is they searched out not only documentary evidence of the experience of children in residential schools but they also gathered testimony from indigenous children and their families about their experiences. They recorded interviews, they looked for oral traditions within the indigenous communities and they gathered together all that testimony and they’re now preserving it in a National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s serving as a source of proof and truth for a piece of history that we’re not proud of in Canada but it is opening up dialogue and discussion about reconciliation which is perhaps a good outcome.
So paper records might be evidence but databases, oral testimonies, stone carvings and emojis can be evidence too and they can all be used to help us frame identity and connection. Evidence also helps us preserve memories and create narratives. What are our family histories and our stories if we don’t have proof of our ancestors, our parents, our grandparents?
One of my favourite stories when I was researching the book relates to this man, John Hartley, who had been filmed in a British Army film called Calling Blighty. What happened was that the British Army would bring together soldiers, particularly in Asia, Burma, Malaya and they’d all be brought together by where they lived, in this case in the Manchester area, and they’d film them, they’d give them 20 seconds to say hello to their families and then they’d send the film home so that everybody in the town in Manchester could come and watch, the families in their town see them on film.
About 400 short films were made between 1944 and ’46 but only 64 are known to survive. Forty were found in the basement of Manchester’s Town Hall in 1984. In 2005 the films were shown as part of a Channel 4 documentary and the daughter of John Hartley was brought to watch the film. Her father, this Corporal John Hartley, was seen there and I love listening to his voice because he says, “best wishes to Mildred, Mother and Dad, trust you’re all well, I’m in the pink”. He was killed about a week or two weeks later and she never knew him. She was born after he’d gone overseas, her mother had destroyed all the records she had of him, changed her daughter’s name to her stepfather’s name.
She never even knew about him until she saw him in 2015 and she could hear his voice for the very first time. I think that is perhaps the most powerful way that we can find some sort of justice and reconciliation for something that maybe should never have happened in the first place but what a wonderful gift she had to be able to hear his voice because the evidence had survived if only precariously in the basement of the Town Hall in Manchester.
So if evidence is this valuable then crisis, what crisis? The crisis is that deluge of data that we have, that we have far too much evidence swirling around the world along with data that does not have a long-term value, we are sleepwalking our way I think through this evidential crisis because we are not recognising that we need to address evidence differently. I want to talk a bit about the assumptions we’re making and how we need to think differently and then I’ll talk about the specific things I think we need to start doing to change the course.
The first assumption is that we know what we mean when we talk about evidence or when we talk about archives, records or data. When I say to somebody I’m an archivist first of all they have no idea what I’m doing and then when I say I look after records they say oh old stuff in libraries. Well old stuff in libraries but the new stuff in your phone and the new stuff in the cloud and the digital stuff. Oh that’s not archives. Yes, it’s archives. We have far too many assumptions about these words which is one of the reasons I shy away from using the word archives now and prefer the word evidence.
We need to shake the assumption that evidence is physical. Evidence now is overwhelmingly digital. It is not static and dusty and old, it is fluid and moving and changeable. Facebook posts are used as proof. We saw that with the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the Brexit story. Oral testimonies can be admitted as evidence in court. Databases hold information with evidential value. Facial recognition software is just the latest of the types of evidence that we are starting to realise needs to be protected.
So if there’s anything that can come out of my efforts with this book it would be for people not to hear the word data and think it’s just digital stuff floating around and not to hear the word archives and think it’s just old stuff sitting in a library but to think is there an evidential value behind some piece of data or information that I have gathered or created or shared and have I protected that piece of evidence so that I can access it and use it again so that it’s safe so that my privacy is protected?
Another assumption about evidence is that it’s just going to exist, it will just stay. It happens as naturally as breathing and it’s preserved as naturally as breathing. I don’t think this is true at all and it actually amazes how much nasty negative evidence people create that they do keep but they keep them in coded secret storage lockers or in encrypted databases but they’re not keeping it in order to uphold their responsibilities, they’re keeping it for some perhaps more nefarious reason.
I think governments are not obligated to create records or keep them safely, as robustly as they should be. Private Citizens, we can’t make people create evidence. That just doesn’t work that way but we can educate people about the great value of taking pictures and keeping the best and getting rid of all the ones that we don’t want to keep. We do not need all the pictures of our breakfast this morning, thank you very much, but we do need the pictures of our family and our children growing up and when we put them on a cloud and assume they’re safe this is a grave mistake and we are truly just sleepwalking our way into that.
We need to demand more of the public sphere, of public sector employees but that comes down to legislative action as I’ll talk about in a minute. But we need to realise it doesn’t just happen, it will not just stay safe and we need to take vigorous and continuous action in order to protect it.
The next assumption is that the computer will solve the problem and that technology is going to be our saviour. There is this cornucopia paradigm that says we’ll build it bigger, we’ll build it better and it will be fine. I am a bit horrified in my research at the environmental costs of digital storage. Everybody talks to me about well just digitise everything, just keep everything in digital form, everything’ll be fine.
First of all we don’t need to or cannot store everything in digital form, we can’t digitise every analogue collection. It’s not sensible, it’s not logical. There’s a lot of material that needs to be kept for legal or other purposes that does not need to live in a digital form.
In my book I talk about an example I encountered in Canada. Library and Archives Canada digitised 62,290 first world war Canadian Expeditionary Force files. They completed the job in 2018. It’s a fantastic digital collection but it took over 40 people at Library and Archives Canada four years working fulltime to digitise those files. They estimated that if one person had done it it would have taken 163 years to do the job. Now if somebody says to me why don’t you just digitise everything I say well you’ve got four people working fulltime to take out the staples, sort the papers, create the metadata, write the descriptions, remove 570 pounds of metal staples and clips – that’s the equivalent to a full grown donkey – and then they could actually digitise it and store it and now they have to keep changing it and refreshing the storage systems and changing where it’s located because the software will not stay still. That’s not necessarily going to be able to happen for every collection in every archives.
Nicholas Pool of the UK-based Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals estimated a cost of about 40 to 50c, and that’s US funds, to digitise what he called normal paper documents and $4 to $17 to digitise photographs. He said if you wanted to digitise all of the holdings of the National Archives in the UK it would cost $50b. Then you still have to keep refreshing it and migrating it and moving into different systems. Forever is a very, very long time.
So what do we do in the face of these realities? I haven’t even talked about cyberattacks and hacking and leaking and all these other things that can happen when you have a digital world. Well I’m going to end by letting you know that the things that I think we need to do.
First, we need to look at those definitions. What do we mean when we talk about data and evidence and information? Then we need to look at our legislative and regulatory environments. We need to look at our ethical frameworks. We need to engage much more actively with evidence and with each other and we need to raise awareness of the value of it and participate much more actively in its care.
Let me talk about those before I end. First, as I said before we need to hammer home these definitions. We need to say data is not just data, it is not anonymous, it is not passive, it is not vague. It can carry evidential value. We need to look at the word archives and say it does not have to mean old or static or dry or dusty. We need to look very hard at the terms we use and not just assume that because we saw that word 50 years ago it meant one thing, doesn’t mean it’s going to mean the same because we live in a world of changing communications which means changing information which means changing evidence.
We need to modernise our legislation and regulations. The European GDPR or General Data Protection Regulation I think is a very good model ‘though it does have its flaws. We need much more robust privacy legislation and I think we need to look at the idea of duty to document for the public sector. But again the main change I would make in the legislative and regulatory world would be to reconcile all these different definitions. One law might say data but it’s really referring to evidence. Another might refer to information but it’s really referring to evidence. The definitions can be overlapping, contradictory and complicated. What is data in one realm might be evidence in another.
We also need to look at third party regulation. Facebook is worth about $140b. Google is worth 100 billion and Apple is worth almost a trillion. These are not public utilities. They’re social media providers. Are they publishers? Are they private agencies? We have entered a world where our digital communications and relationships need to be looked at completely differently. We need new regulations in order to address this in terms of privacy, access, intellectual property and the protection of evidence.
Now when I say this I am not advocating for laws that limit free speech or freedom of expression, I don’t believe that at all. Quite the contrary, I think we need laws that support transparency and honesty. But we need to do something about third party providers such as Facebook or Google who seem to feel that somehow they are neutral platforms.
I think we need to look completely differently at the ethical framework around technology starting but not ending with artificial intelligence so we’re looking at facial recognition technology and it is fascinating to me just this week to see how many jurisdictions are banning, if only temporary, the use of facial recognition technology and cameras because they’re saying wait a minute, we need to think about this. Perhaps the light is dawning now that we say that we have all this technology and as my mother used to say to me Laura, just because Johnny’s mother lets him do it doesn’t make it right. So just because we can use these technologies doesn’t necessarily mean that we should without some very deep scrutiny. We can say no.
I think we need to look at how governments prioritise the use of technology as well. It is amazing to me again the environmental costs and the energy costs of using computer technology. Are we assuming that everybody will have to have a smartphone in order to access their health records? That everybody will have to have technology in order to rent a house or buy groceries or anything when we don’t even use it for making a phone call anymore? Where is the equity in that if we don’t have adequate energy sources and if people don’t have a home where they can actually recharge their homes? Are we going to set up an environment where everybody has to be stopped and plugged in every once in a while in order to be able to carry on with their working life?
Next, we need to engage not only with evidence but with the mediators who use that evidence such as historians, genealogists, statisticians and journalists. I think the big call now is for us as in my world, the recordkeeping world, to work much more closely with journalists because we need to make sure that journalism stays alive because then the records will be protected. If people are not in the town hall listening to the meetings and holding the government officials to account then the stories will not be out there for the public to know that maybe there’s something going on in town hall that they should be aware of. But they will also not see the value in keeping the records if there isn’t somebody actually issuing an access to information request or somebody doing research or somebody demanding that they be held accountable by virtue of the evidence they leave behind.
I think there is a serious knock-on effect for evidence in the decline of newspapers and journalism around the world and so if I were to ask anybody to do anything right now I’d say subscribe to a newspaper because then it’s a support for journalism and a support for people who are going to use records and evidence to further their cause.
Finally, I think we need to engage, inspire and educate. In the 1990s about 300,000 South Africans died of AIDS-related illnesses, some people say in part because South African President Thabo Mbeki refused scientific facts, refused evidence that proved that AIDS was transmitted by a virus. This was a personal truth masquerading as policy. In 2018 on the other hand the BBC reported a study by academics in Uganda and Norway working with students in Kampala, Uganda in a broadcast called You Can Handle The Truth that showed that the children as young as 10 could distinguish the scientific basis for viruses like AIDS and distinguish them from local myths about the disease with only basic education and training. We need to train children to understand what evidence is, we need historicity as much as we need literacy. We need to engage with them and raise awareness of the value, we need to embrace and visit archives, visit libraries, write letters to the paper when you see an exhibit that you like that includes documentary materials, let the world know that this matters.
I’m going to end with Orwell because we must because we live in Orwellian times and in my book I quote this quote from 1984. “When memory failed and written records were falsified, when that happened the claim of the party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted because there did not exist and never again could exist any standard against which it could be tested.”
I have written this book as a form of protest because I know a lot of my colleagues are civil servants who cannot speak out the way I can as an independent scholar and a consultant. But I believe that our job as professional archivists and recordkeepers is to protect evidence, not the evidence we like, not the evidence we prefer but the evidence of the whole story. That is what we need to do but in a digital age we can’t do it if all those quintillions of bytes of data are whirling around in your phone and your phone and your phone and we can’t engage with you at the moment of creation to ensure it’s protected.
So I’ve written this book in the hopes that the public will see how critically important and how wonderful evidence can be and will engage in the process of protecting it so that we, the recordkeepers, can try the best we can on our own without that help.
I believe that truth matters very much and I believe that facts matter very much but if we’re going to preserve and sustain a democratic civilised society we need to create and protect and use evidence. Without it there will be no evidence-based truth. Thank you.
M: Thank you very much.
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