Future of the archives and archivists is terrifying and exciting

My name is Natasha, I am 58 years young, and I am Russian archivist, records manager, consultant, scholar, educator, writer and translator.

In my opinion, our greatest professional challenge is not the ever-changing technology. First and foremost we should understand our mission and role in new complex hybrid environment, and make ourselves useful for our employers and for the society in general. Our mission and goals determine the must-have professional knowledge, skills and competencies, which in turn set the requirements for education and training programs. Second greatest challenge is overcoming old paradigms – not only the ancient “paper” ones, but also the ones that were shaped during previous years of the digital revolution.

When in the future DNA storage becomes mainstream, our profession will be one of the greenest! / Photo: N.Khramtsovsky

My vision of the present and future is the following:

  • Number of records managers and archivists will shrink to some 2-3 people per huge enterprise; however, the remaining ones will be more skilled and their job will be more managerial. They will be a cross-breed between traditional archivists, specialized “information” lawyers, IT and information security professionals;
  • As a profession, the archivists are facing a tough choice: either to become multi-discipline specialists able to discuss issues at C-level, or be replaced by other professionals (probably mostly IT);
  • Our hard-to-escape Orwellian future means that all the information should be managed on par with records;
  • Production of paper records doesn’t slow down and, in some countries, it increases at an alarming rate. Moreover nowadays larger part of newly-produced paper records is of permanent value, since less important ones were digitized first. Hence paper archives will keep going, but the only thing non-digital in the paper archives of the future shall be the records themselves. Appraisal criteria for paper records will become tougher, simply because of limited shelf space. Some already accessioned paper records of lesser value probably will be digitized and the source records will be destroyed afterwards;
  • Gradual loss of vital “paper” handling skills is already visible. Not yet ready to ensure reliable preservation of digital records, we risk failing at preserving paper ones as well…
  • Exponential growth of digital records and information will continue for some time, until finally stopped (or at least slowed down) by disruptive changes in the work processes. The variety and complexity of digital records also will be on the rise, and some quite unusual objects will play the role of records. Since the organizations’ capabilities are different, all kinds on the technologies, old and new, will be used simultaneously, making archivists’ life more interesting;
  • Hybrid (both paper and electronic) records management and archiving will be a challenge. More and more often the solution will be to digitize the paper and dispose of it afterwards;
  • For emerging disruptive technologies like AI, records management/archiving by design might be the only option to ensure openness, transparency and accountability;
  • Huge complex digital assets will require new approaches (e.g. post-custodialismm outsourcing to cloud and/or to specialized service providers);
  • Large-scale digital archives will employ a limited number of professionally trained archivists (less than 10% of the workforce), so those archivists should be knowledgeable in many areas and have good management skills. Archivists in the smaller archives will have to be “jacks of all trades”;
  • Fundamentals of archival science should be revisited, in order to take into account already happening and future changes.

I may be wrong, of course, and the future may be even more amazingly complex and challenging, full of dangerous pitfalls and wonderful possibilities!

By Dr Natasha Khramtsovsky works as a senior records and information management expert for Russian software vendor Electronic Office Systems LLC. She is national ISO and ITU expert, member of ICA and ARMA International.