People at the centre of the 21st Century archive Design

For many years, archives have been perceived by the public, and even most of its key stakeholders, as just about the recording of history and past events. So, common definitions of the archival notion have focused on repositories holding documents and other materials of historical or rare value, with little consideration for the people who created those documents and purposes for which they created them. This perception has, for a long time, influenced the designing of archives. A definition provided by the International Council on Archives (ICA) of archives, puts humans and their activity into perspective – Archives are the documentary by-product of human activity retained for long-term value (ICA, 2016). However, while this definition suggests how important people and their activities are to the archival enterprise, the designing of most archives over the years, have still focused more on the material aspects to the neglect of the people aspects of the archival practice.

For archives to be effective preservers of future memories, their role of informing the present should be understood to be just as equally important as their function of keeping the past. This is because, archives have a vital role to play in empowering people to become successful learners, confident individuals, reasonable citizens and effective contributors (see Scottish Council on Archives, 2018). People, on the other hand, help to bring to life, the pneuma and vivacity in archives. This contribution by people is very evident in modern times of fast developing digital technologies, where users can make profiles, create works, collections, bookmarks and other contents, post comments, give kudos, participate in challenges, import works etc., and enable easy access by all. The focus of the design of 21st century archives, therefore, expresses how to innovate and reimagine programs and services with, and for, people to be creative in bringing to life what was.

The of Design Thinking model

The Design Thinking for the 21st Century archives puts into perspective both the physical structural designing of archives and having people at the centre of archival processes. The physical structure of archives, archival systems, processes and activities are all designed to enable people to be creative, innovative and inspired to work the archives to bring the life in past records to interpret the present and direct the future. An example of the modern physical design of archives is the new $147 Million Massimiliano Fuksas designed State Archives Centre of France (Such, 2005). When you look at this magnificent archival building, it is very easy for people to focus the architectural design and how the 154-foot- high physical structure will house state documents dating back to the French Revolution and how documents will be stored in concrete-walled-rooms within a 591-foot-long perforated steel boxes, seven horizontal boxes, offices, meeting room and reception and pools. But, all these impressive physical structures means nothing if it does not have people at the centre of the design. The words of Joseph Giovannini – a prominent critic, journalist, author, teacher and architectural designer, emphasise how smart it is to focus on people aspects expresses that has been the main reason for France’s design thinking archive:

If reason is to the French what beauty is to the Italians, the new context for the archives was not only a vote for égalité, but also for rationality. The new archive would, the ministry hoped, play a role in building a new, expanded French cultural ecosystem that embraced the overlooked and marginalized outer edges—and societies—of the city. The move was smart. (Giovannini 2014)

In other words, the reason for a new design for the French National Archives goes beyond just the aesthetic view, it has people at the centre of the thinking. 

Another example of design thinking of archives can be seen in the work being done by the Scottish Council on Archives (SCA), where archives are perceived beyond the physical objects to putting people at the centre of each stage of the process. Through the use of creative approaches such as stories, dramatization and art, SCA work with archivists and educators, to help school children and users to bring out the life in archives and enhance the deeper meaning of the archival materials and the events they generate memories of (Scottish Council on Archives, 2018).

Approaches to put people at the centre of the Design Thinking model in archives

Education and awareness creation – involve people right from an early age. The teaching archival concept should start from the primary school for them to engage with objects so that they can understand see the value of archives and personalise the memory and life in the records.

Collaboration – archives need to work together and collaborate with all stakeholders to keep the life in the materials at their care. In today’s world, the power of technology is erasing boundaries and enabling the easy flow of both people and ideas. It is not impossible to see that a piece of the story that is missing in an archive in New Zealand may be found in an archive in the UK, especially as there is evidence of both past and present migration between countries. When archives in different countries link up and connect with one another, it can be possible to put important pieces together to make the memory of the world complete.

Physical setting – Just as libraries and other memory institutions, archive are not free from the old notion of a quiet place, a repository of old mundane materials and small uncomfortable reading rooms etc. But, the 21st Century archives seek to digitise material to allow wider access and preservation for as long as required.  Staff are also more accessible to patrons as much as possible so both people and the archival materials are not physically constraint.

Taking the archives to the people – For many years the approach of archives have been to keep old records of past events in buildings that are usually secluded from prominent ones in the city. Only a few people, usually some old historians conducting research on some old events may care to visit the archives. But now this trend is changing and needs to change fast. Like many libraries, most archives are informal community centres, with transparent spaces for users to feel comfortable. Even non-users can come and relax in the cafes of the archive or make use of its free Wi-Fi etc. this approach is taking the archives to the people and invites them to come and see what is in store for them(Gisolfi, 2014).

Putting people at the center – Many archives are now increasingly involving people in their design approach to achieve effectiveness. For instance, the ‘Community Archive’ of New Zealand, previously the New Zealand Register of Manuscripts (NRM), used people, especially its users, in various aspects of its design including security, data description, promotion, work plan and the process of keeping the website up-to-date (the Community Archive, 2016). Nevertheless, there seem to be some inconsistencies in the way New Zealanders are applying the design thinking to manage the Community Archive, as, at the moment, it is frozen to public involvement. Like the Community Archive of New Zealand, most archives that appear to be involving people, are not applying the design thinking appropriately and a huge number of archives are not applying it at all. There is, therefore, a need for a forum to discuss the design thinking with the context of archives for all stakeholders to fully understand and to achieve effectiveness for 21st Century archives.

The main problem archives, and by extension archivist surfer across the globe is about perception. Both the concept and its professional practice have received negative perceptions because archival products are seen as old, mundane no-longer-useful materials. But this perception can be changed through redesigning the 21st Century archives. It is for these reasons that discussion forum like the International Archives Week (from Monday 3 to Sunday 9 June 2019) is very important for all stakeholders to attend and get involved in the discussions and share our views. Also, the upcoming joint conference by the main archives associations in the world, including the International Council on Archives (ICA), Australian Society of Archivist (ASA), Archives and Records Association of New Zealand Te Huinga Mahara (ARANZ) and the Pacific Regional Branch of the International Council on Archives (PARBICA) has taken Archives by Design as it theme. The conference, which is to be held in Adelaide, South Australia from 21-25 October 2019 will be a useful platform and opportunity to explore various views on how information managers and archivists can use human-centred approaches such as empathy, creativity, innovation, experimentation, prototyping and co-designing in the development of archives and recordkeeping systems to ensure the delivery of archival services in the digital age (ICA, 2019). This is an opportunity for engagement the 21st Century archivist cannot miss to get involved.

By Dr Eric Boamah, President Archived and Records Association of New Zealand Te Huinga Mahara (ARANZ)


Gibb, J. (2019). Archives to leave the basement. Otago Daily Times. Retrieved from

Giovannini, J. (2014). National Archives of France, Designed by Studio Fuksas

ICA. (2019). Conference ICA Adelaide: Designing the archive. Retrieved from

ICA. (2016). What are archives?

Such, R. (2005). Fuksas designing new French archives

Scottish Council on Archives. (2018). Education and Learning. Retrieved from

The community archive. (2018)National Register of Archives and Manuscripts. Retrieved from