Why the duty to document remains essential

Jeff James

Jeff James

When I was asked to take part in this year’s International Archives Week, I did so with the same enthusiasm we at the UK National Archives always have when we participate in campaigns to advocate why archives matter.

The circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented. Archives and their services across the world have been greatly affected, and governments are having to work hard to navigate solutions throughout their nations and jurisdictions in response to fundamental societal, environmental and economic disruption. The pandemic has ramifications for us all – but over the last few testing months, the international archival community has continued to look for what might be possible for archives to do, to serve our audiences in new and modest ways.

Record keeping always matters but never more so than when responding to a global pandemic. The international archival community has a vital role to play, and it is with this in mind that COVID-19: The duty to document does not cease in a crisis was published and is supported by several influential data and archival institutions. As we move towards adapting our professional and personal lives, people will seek to review government responses and to understand how to deal best with such situations in the future.

The statement outlines three key principles:

  • Decisions must be documented
  • Records and data should be secured and preserved in all sectors
  • The security, preservation, and access to digital content should be facilitated during the shutdown.

These principles apply at all times. Archives collect, preserve and provide access to information. Our public task to document decisions, plans, policies, and the voices of people, is more pressing now than ever before. The next few months will require finding greater ways to develop and sustain our services, and to remind people about the public good that archives deliver.

As you might imagine, collecting records now and for future generations to understand the pandemic has been at the forefront of many conversations. Alongside the difficulties, archives have been inspired to try a raft of innovative online approaches and, in some cases, to form greater partnerships with others. The joint statement is just one example of the latter, but this year’s International Archives Week is another opportunity for us all to do the same – and more – on an even greater scale.

Now, perhaps more than at any time in living memory, it is crucial to protect and support archives of all kinds so that they are able to fulfil their vital role in the understanding of this period of history. Especially in a world where there is growing concern about trust and authenticity. My thoughts are with everyone who has been impacted by the international health crisis, but I do hope you can find some way to take part in this week’s events.

Jeff James, Chief Executive and Keeper, The UK National Archives

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