The Approach to Designing Archives

“Designing the Archives” is a brilliant theme for this year’s annual conference. It encompasses all aspects of the archival endeavor and challenges all institutions to take a holistic approach to designing services, holdings, organizational structure, staffing mix, online presence and physical facilities.  As recordkeeping systems change with technology advances, as public expectations of all services become more demanding and as organizational culture shifts to welcome a new generation of colleagues, planning and designing the archives becomes essential.

Sustainable planning is a continuous process characterized by flexibility but animated always by respect for the values and principles of the information disciplines. In this light, inherited traditions and old habits must be questioned and amended to reflect new conditions.  For archives, it is best to begin with clarity regarding the services we wish to provide, online or in person, to whom and with that the preferred business model. 

For a government archives, the primary client is the citizen whose long-term interests are served through effective archival services to governmental departments and agencies. This includes records management, retention and appraisal, preservation, reference, protection of privacy and access to information services.  These services need to be designed to be easy to understand and use, enlisting all managers across the organization by stressing that records in all formats constitute an irreplaceable and valued corporate asset that must be managed as effectively as managers have traditionally managed other assets: finances and human resources. Compliance must be monitored and audited.

Services for authors and researchers, lawyers, courts, schools and the general public are increasingly online and modern students seldom stray beyond a simple search on their phone or computer.  To what extent can archival resources and related services be fully accessible online? While working with private sector partners in digitization and search may help archives in their ambition for open access, this tends to break the traditional link between researcher and the archives. Users appreciate and pay for the search service but never visit and forget the archives that maintains the original record.  How can the wide range of users both actual and potential be enlisted as allies, equally concerned about the integrity of the record?

For the broad public, a government archives has an obligation to identify and preserve the key records of citizenship and the constitution, of human and corporate rights within society, of government decisions, land ownership, military service, patents and a host of other records. These are not clients but citizens. They may never use the record but trust that unsung archivists will fulfill their responsibility.   Recognizing that modern governments deliver services in many ways and with many partners, and that policy is directly influenced by many, some government archives have shifted to focus on the broader archives of governance, designing their acquisition priorities and allocation of resources to document society.

In designing the mix of services appropriate for their community or society, the archives must recognize it is not inward-looking but defines its role in terms relating to the general social goals, priorities and ambitions of society. In terms of services, their design must take into account the interests and potential links with other information providers and build partnerships. More generally, as people move within countries and internationally, their archival heritage may be in many places and services need to be designed to reflect the needs of a global society.  Partnerships with other archives, with allies and with other professions become vital to success. A nation’s archival heritage is not within the walls of one institution but in most countries resides within a network of governmental, corporate and institutional archives; physically separate but gradually collaborating to simplify online access.

Designing a building to enable and symbolize these various services and embody the prestige and power associated with the archival record can follow once the services have been planned and designed. The archives’ online presence is an integral part of the capital infrastructure and services, web site, social media and building need to be conceptualized and planned together.

The changes impacting archives are not short-term nor are they fads. They are disruptive, challenging and continuously evolving.  They are real and will continue. The key to designing the future is flexibility: in organizational structures, service models and in staffing.  All programs must be routinely subject to review. The organization must enable innovation and progress through pilot projects to test new approaches, rigorous assessment and a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. This requires new skills.  Every modern institution requires a mix of specialists, committed to the same goals and values but bringing different perspectives in how to achieve them.  Creative interaction through teamwork and a management willing to readjust traditional budgeting allocations to permit pilot projects, experimentation and even occasional failure can ensure archives remain current with their society.

A few years ago, the head of the Canadian Public Service encouraged all staff to collaborate, innovate and move ahead with courage. It is an exciting time to be advancing the archival endeavor. It is also exceedingly difficult.  And it is inevitable.  I trust the discussions in Adelaide will be equally disruptive and provocative. Enjoy ! 

By Ian E. Wilson, FICA ,Special Adviser, National Archives, the United Arab Emirates,Former Librarian and Archivist of Canada.