Natalie Ceeney: Looking to the future

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.

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5 responses to “Natalie Ceeney: Looking to the future

  1. soaconference2009

    Questions for Natalie:
    Delegates asked several questions and Natalie did say she didn’t mind answering difficult ones. In terms of the advocacy agenda, she said that she spent 2 out of 5 days influencing and heads of each organisation needed to similarly allocate their time. Those in small organisations noted this was impossible to achieve. Natalie acknowledged this and said that partnerships could create the capacity to do more advocacy.

    The possible change in goverment and the Conservative pledge to abolish the MLA was also discussed. Natalie stressed that she could not predict the future but did say that sometimes not all pre-election pledges come to pass. Goverments of all colours will need a strong archives sector and it is up to us to make the case.

    The issue of the need to have qualifications as a barrier to entry into the profession was also discussed. Natalie seemed to have concerns about the skillset and relevance of the traditional archive courses and said she preferred to hire people for their attitude and potential and ability to learn rather than an existing qualification. She invited FARMER representatives to discuss their plans with her later in the day.

    I have summarised the main questions, but delgates were pleased to have the opportunity to hear Natalie’s views directly from her. She made a point of saying that she was working closely with Roy Clare of the MLA to ensure that the two organisations did not give conflicting messages.

  2. soaconference2009

    Jenny Hon Sec Personal Comment: Natalie speaks very well and fluently and I think she is a good advocate for the arhcive sector. She did acknowledge difficulties and in some ways her talk was quite slick with a lot of questions and statements but few answers. Then again, it is not her responsibility or that of TNA to provide these and a clear statement of the issues and pledge of TNA support to address them is very far from worthless.
    When Natalie was appointed there was a lot of comment about the ‘problem’ that she is not an archivist. There was a lot of expectation that she was going to fall on her face, cause problems for the sector or simply not understand what we were about. I think she has won over a lot of people and there are some obvious advantages in not having a professional archivist or record-keeper in post as she will talk the language of politicians and policy makers.

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