Justice and accountability, 23 years on?

Yesterday (12th September 2012) the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was published.  Ninety-six men, women and children died as a result of the Hillsborough Disaster on 15 April 1989 – still the most serious tragedy in UK sporting history.  Half of those people were less than 21 years old.  Thousands suffered physical injury and/or long-term psychological harm. Twenty-three years later, the Panel has negotiated the disclosure of documents from those involved and published its analysis in an in-depth Report.

This seems to me a game-changing moment for the UK.  The dignity and tenacity with which the families of the victims have prosecuted their fight for justice compels a change in institutional mindsets where the defence of its authority position must be balanced by an understanding of the rights of the individual.  I’m not going to comment here on the individual victims and their families, the terrible events of the tragedy itself, previous enquiries,our so-called “‘Elf n Safety” culture, the work of the panel, the official apologies and comments, or future prosecutions.

But I want to look briefly at what the work of the Independent Panel reveals for records and recordkeeping, and for freedom of information  in the UK in 2012.  The way in which power is exerted through the control of records and through access to records should be of fundamental concern to recordkeepers (yes, I mean BOTH records managers and archivists…) and to everyone in whatever kind of society they live in.

Note that first of all, the Independent Panel publishes online a catalogue and digital images of records held by 85 contributors.  The organisations are chiefly in the public sector but also include private sector, and some individuals.  In establishing the Panel in December 2009, the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson included in its terms of reference

Exceptionally, the independent panel will be provided with access to Hillsborough documentation held by Government and local agencies relevant to events surrounding the tragedy in advance of the normal 30-year point for public disclosure. The fundamental principles will be full disclosure of documentation and no redaction of content, except in the limited legal and other circumstances outlined in a disclosure protocol….

• in line with established practice, work with the Keeper of Public Records in preparing options for establishing an archive of Hillsborough documentation, including a catalogue of all central Governmental and local public agency information and a commentary on any information withheld for the benefit of the families or on legal or other grounds;…

Unusually in the UK, the work of the Independent Panel was simply an attempt to collate all the available evidence and to publish it, not to apportion blame or to make value judgements.  Yet it is very clear from the reaction in the last 36 hours that the impact of this “simple” undertaking – records speaking for themselves – has far-reaching consequences.

Former Keeper of the Public Records, Sarah Tyacke CBE, was a member of the panel in recognition of the crucial role archives would play in its work.  Christine Gifford’s expertise in access to information was also of vital importance in the process undertaken by the panel.

The Appendices to the Report note

In keeping with the Panel’s terms of reference and protocol, contributing organisations holding relevant documents and information were expected to arrange for that material to be archived and catalogued prior to disclosure to the Panel. In practice this did not happen and much of the material received by the Panel was neither archived nor catalogued. This task was carried out by a team of archivists working with the Panel. (p.384)

The cataloguing process was time-consuming because many of the documents provided by the contributing organisations or individuals had not previously been catalogued or filed. (p.388)

A failure in records management on the part of the 42 (maybe more – a conservative estimate) public authority organisations covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000? The Lord Chancellor’s Code of Practice, revised/reissued in July 2009 (the “section 46 code“) provides guidance on records management.

I suppose at least (or in spite of) their inertia, the organisations were able to disclose the documents to the panel.  Nonetheless, 3 project archivists had to be employed by Sheffield City Archives to deal with cataloguing and digitisation.  Sheffield Archives has a series of guides on the disaster and on the Panel’s archive which I expect will become heavily used.

Interestingly, the catalogue of documents has browse as well as search options – effectively, some pre-loaded authority searches (by contributor, by person involved etc).   There doesn’t seem to be any difficulty with users navigating and comprehending the use of catalogue descriptions/ representations to access digitised content, and although ISAD(G) elements are clearly in use in the detailed descriptions (see image below) they have been named in plain English.  Caveats to the reader about redaction and about the digitisation process are also clearly expressed and again seem to be unproblematic for users.  Some wider lessons here for digitisation and dissemination.

As part of the process of scanning documents in order to make them available on this website, we used Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to ‘read’ words on the scanned images of pages and create a version of the document in text file format.

This OCR information is used to help find documents when conducting searches and when building the lists of documents returned by some of the browse methods.

Whilst the website is not solely dependent on OCR software to find words and phrases searched for, documents are less likely to appear if the OCR software was unable to recognise the relevant word or phrase eg if they were hand written, or the paper original was in a poor condition.  (website help)

Finally, the catalogue data is available to download as Open Data – “allowing” this kind of data out into the wild is quite a new thing for recordkeepers.

I hope that Sheffield Archives and/or the project archivists will publish and disseminate their experiences as recordkeepers working on this project – I think there are a number of lessons to be learned by the recordkeeping community wider than these very preliminary reactions.


11 thoughts on “Justice and accountability, 23 years on?

  1. Thanks Sarah for a really thoughful piece. I approached the archive as an archivist and a Liverpool fan and this mix leads me to conclude that the catalogue and archive is successful (in informational terms) because the designers have so very clearly had the needs of the families in mind. Perhaps this is one of the lessons you mention?

  2. Absolutely, Janice. I think there are some clear lessons here for us both for the design of “traditional” catalogues to suit the needs & manage the expectations of existing/”traditional” AND new users. And also for what I’m currently calling “user education”/information literacy (future blog post alert!)

  3. Sarah,
    Thanks for a great post. I was thinking of tweeting on this topic last night asking if anyone had written anything yet. I hope that the Sheffield Archives follows up on your suggestion. There are wider lessons for anyone working with transparency agenda or with freedom of information. The project, how it was done, and what is achieved is amazing.

    What it shows is how valuable records are and how we use them to understand the past. They take on a life of their own and, most importantly, allow us the memory by which we can hold power to account. As we know from history, those in power who seek to control or avoid accountability will seek to erase or shape memories. In this instance, the Archivists have made sure the memory stays alive and can be used as a basis for pursuing justice.

    In a sense, i hope this gives people an understandign of how important and powerful archives and records management can be not only for pursuing justice but for understanding who they are and understanding society.

    Well done on the post.

    P.S. On the topic of user experience you may be interested in this group and the paper it refers to. Apologies if you already know about this material and this group. http://thecardigancontinuum.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/cardigan-continuum-north-west/

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  8. Thanks very much for writing about this. LIke you I would be interested to hear more about the record keepers’ experience in collecting and organizing the documents, as well as the process of OCR’ing, indexing and putting the website together. It looks like a lot of thought went into the functionality and clean design of the site, as well as the availability of the data as CSV and XML. I think it’s a great model for what archives can look like on the Web. Definitely do a follow up post if you find out any more details!

    • Thanks Ed. I thought the clean design and making the data downloadable were really radical steps for this kind of archival site, although common in museums it seems to me. I’m encouraging Sheffield to write about their experiences, and hope that they’ll be able to find the time in busy busy lives to do this!

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