“We are what we keep”: SoA/ARA conference 2010 – day 1

The conference blog and twapperkeeper archive will give a live flavour of proceedings.

After a welcome from Katy Goodrum, Terry Cook gave the keynote speech considering appraisal as the “missing piece” of the archival puzzle.  He explored 3 reasons for this:

1. the Jenkinsonian legacy of “passive appraisal” by archivists – appraisal done by records creators;

2. a view of the archivist as an objective curator (rather than a subjective, activist user of records); and

3. a view of archival work as a series of processes and procedures without a set of archival values.

Terry’s paper was a challenging and dense one, to which I can’t possibly do justice here!  However he finished by laying out a challenge for the new/latest/current generation of archivists – to co-create a “virtual inclusive national archive”.  (Library & Archives Canada will next month launch just this kind of approach).  How well we do this will affect how we flourish in the 21st century.

Alan Cameron, President of the Society of Archivists/Archives & Records Association, followed with a personal look back at the last 40 years of archival work in the UK.  Following Terry’s challenge to the 21st century archivist, Alan laid out some challenges for the professional body including the need to increase diversity of entry to the profession.  He also reflected on the development of the professional body itself over the last 40 years.

Oliver Morley, Acting Chief Executive of The National Archives, rounded off the morning setting out 3 key themes (another 3!) in the digital and “newly-austere” era we are now in:

  • transparency, leading to accountability: archives have the longest experience of delivering transparency.
    A couple of TNA examples: http://www.data.gov.uk and the web continuity programme, which in the last year has taken broken links from government websites and redirected them to websites archived on a quarterly basis – 450 million redirected hits over the last 12 months.
    This is a passive view of appraisal – keeping all government websites – but an approach which Morley feels could do a considerable part of “what needs to be done” (he didn’t elaborate on this) to archive government.
  • preservation – Morley is more worried about the preservation of paper than digital: TNA is required to find 11% Co2 savings, which is a tough commitment given the energy requirements of the building and plant to maintain physical storage.
  • access – Morley is convinced that access is at least as core to the duty of the archivist as appraisal.  He feels that TNA is well positioned to do this: it already does more document production and provides more online accesses than other other archive in the world [he didn’t give a source for this claim].

Morley feels that archives are at the junction of transparency and “the big society”, two of the key issues in the UK political landscape – and that archives [perhaps just TNA?] are well positioned to gain advantage.

The morning programme finished ahead of time (!), and after an excellent lunch the conference reconvened for the afternoon sessions split into the conservation and archives/records management tracks.  On the latter track, the afternoon session was billed as a colloquium on appraisal.  I had the job of kicking the session off: here’s my SoA conference paper on Prezi.

Four short papers followed, first from Judith Phillips on appraisal and archival functions in a museum setting (the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle).  Judith explored the different outlooks on the value of archival material, particularly to curators, and on the formulation and implementation of acquisition policy.

Judith was followed by Daniel Scott-Davies, who again considered archival appraisal in a museum setting, this time from the perspective of a curator dedicated to “archiving” a particular individual.  Daniel also described work by the Scout Association to create a distributed archive in partnership with local scouting units – an organisational example of Terry’s virtual, inclusive, national archive.

Paul Sillitoe then presented his PhD research on technical drawings: 2D representations of 3D objects.  Paul described the uniquely problematic nature of technical drawings, given their huge diversity, the use of graphical conventions differing widely across industries and time, their complexity as the products they portray became increasingly sophisticated, and their overwhelming numbers.  Paul contents that engineering and technology in UK archives are disproportionately represented by textual records, meaning that the archival record for industrialization is unbalanced, and so too are industrial histories.  As one of his research outcomes, he aims to produce practical guidance for archivists on dealing with technical drawings.  I think such guidance should be incredibly useful and will help archivists to counteract their own personal biases and prejudices against “difficult” technical drawings.

Chris Pickford concluded the papers in the session with a look at local authority building plans, examining a range of appraisal strategies to meet the consensus that there is a need to reduce the vast bulk of most local authorities’ planning records.  Chris had some practical guidance culled from a number of respositories and from his own experience both as an archivist as an architectural historian.

Many of the questions and observations in the Q&A session which followed focussed on the issues associated with the appraisal and selection of  building plans.  Some broader questions/points were raised about the problem of appraisal involving users, and about the need to document appraisal decisions in all settings.

The conference concluded, with the AGM of the SoA/ARA following.  The results of elections and the formal business of the meeting will be reported elsewhere, but two specific calls for participation in the work of the new ARA were made:

1.  ARA is meeting with the Culture Secretary in mid-September, and members are invited to contact the Chair, any of the Councillors, the Chief Exec or the Head of Public Affairs with thoughts, suggestions and comments in preparation for the meeting.

2.  help is needed the ARA expert network and series of Best Practice guidelines – examples of help included case studies and information about projects and other work.  (As the ARA website will be revamped imminently I will post any relevant links to further information in due course)

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