Designing the Archives in the 21st Century

How to account for the persistent perception of archival practice as an analogue-based profession? Perhaps it stems in part from conflating the long history of recordkeeping (to wit Mesopotamia BC3500) with anachronistic practices such as physical formats, paper-based files, end of life-cycle processes and rigid conventions. In fact, so much about the archival profession and its practice are well positioned to respond to the digital transformation of work and society: our ability to manage large conglomerates of data over time, the contextual overview we bring to our understanding of information process, and, intrinsic to the Australian Series System, an inbuilt mechanism to manage and document changing environments. There are very real opportunities for the archival profession in the C21 amongst the challenges.

Designing the Archives in the 21st Century requires navigation of a rapidly changing environment. Outmoded legislative frameworks and limited resources appear to hold us back in a world of social media, multiple devices, systems-based data management and decentralised records creation. These new environments place pressure on the traditional processes of appraisal, arrangement, description and access. Yet we have more archival users than ever – access via digitisation of records has increased the reach and extent of archival engagement exponentially. Designing user-centered archives is now more important than ever and it is a key theme of this year’s joint ASA-ICA-ARANZ-PARBICA Conference.

We also need to build the archival skills base of the future. Our educational practices need to engage with digital archival skills development; our work practices need to build flexibility and responsiveness; and we must recognise the value of what we do ourselves. Most critically we need to embrace change and collaboration while clearly articulating what we, as archives and recordkeeping professionals, can offer our workplaces, related professions, and the wider community.

Undoubtedly archival practice requires engagement with new technology in order to ensure records of permanent value are both created and managed as archives. Innovative methods are required to ensure archival records remain accessible and re-usable, which goes well beyond mass digitisation as a primary objective. Access in the C21 may change significantly along with forms of recordkeeping, but the archives will continue to provide evidence of what we do, what is done to us, and what we can do. Let’s not confuse the need to revitalise our processes with the practice itself.

By Julia Mant President, Australian Society of Archivists Inc

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