Jenny Hon Sec: Just heard Natalie’s presentation on Sustaining the Future of Archives in the Electronic Age. I am always struck when I hear Natalie by what a good speaker she is – both a prepared speech and off-the-cuff and willing to talk to people. I promise I’m not just saying that hoping for a job. For one thing I’d never be able to afford to live in Kew!
Anyway, on to the content. Natalie discussed the changes that have taken place in the past year. From the positive developments on the public consultation on the archives to the impact of the credit crunch. She recapped on some of the issues we are all familiar with, but doesn’t hurt to restate them. Google has become so much part of our lives but is only 10 years old. Users expect information to be available instantly and fully. Despite the fact that Freedom of Information has only been in place for five years, many people assume they have always had the right to information.
The challenges of the digital age are also increasing. The multiplicity of blogs, wikis, twitter feeds, not to mention Facebook, Bebo and Friends Reunited all need to be preserved permanently in some way – both for their evidential value and historical importance. Does the technology even exist to do this? Anyone still using floppy disks? Digtial obselescence is also an issue and things move very fast. TNA has 700 staff and a £55m budget and they struggle to meet these challenges.
Natalie identified the challenges of the sector as: Lack of clear leadership, disparate and fragmented sector with many organisations, Lack of career progression and inequalities of funding. She applauded the current merger discussions between the Society of Archivists, the National Council on Archives and the Association of Chief Archivists in Local Government and stressed that TNA supported this development. The fragmentation could be a problem but to some cextent was the nature of the archives sector with public and private bodies. Career progression could also be difficult for many and the sector is predominantly white and middle class. The need to have a qualification and fund university study set up immediate barriers.
The report of the Archives Task Force was compelling and important but failed to work because it was not goverment policy. It was owned by the sector but not the policy makers. The new Archives Strategy was intended to be enabling and not prescriptive and had the support of government departments. The recommendation for Fewer, Bigger and Better services had been widely misinterpreted: this did not mean closing archive services, but developing partnerships and economies of scale. Some services could be centralised but others needed the local knowledge in the community.
Money is always an issue and we have moved from asking for more funding towards simply mitigating cuts. The public sector is facing its toughest time for 30 years and we all need to ensure that archives are on the radar. In difficult times we need to be proactive and radical, to ensure we are thought of at the start of an agenda and not at the end and to be a constant and necessary presence. The TNA are keen to support this but we need a clear vision, to work together, to showcase best practice and the lobby upwards.