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“Change”, but how? The archival function in the digital age – #ICA_2012 (5)

23 augustus 2012 Gepubliceerd door Laat uw gedicht achter

At the ICA 2012 congress, Hans Hofman of the Dutch National Archives took a step back from practical issues in order to look more fundamentally at the core of “the archival function” in present-day society. What exactly has the digital age brought about in society at large, and what are the implications for the role the archives can and must play? – by Inge Angevaare

Hofman preparing for his speech

To my mind, we don’t do this enough: stepping back from “life as it has always been” and from day-to-day practicalities to look at the essence of what we are doing and why, so this is a welcome effort by the Dutch National Archives (for details, see Hofman’s full paper).

Here are the key changes in our society according to Hofman:

The digital revolution

As a consequence, key issues facing society include:

  • Erosion of citizen trust in government
  • Erosion of government services
  • Loss of corporate/national memory
  • Loss of individual identity
  • Threat to individual rights.

These are the questions that archives must ask themselves:

Questions to be asked

Pondering these questions, the Dutch National Archives have formulated the following guidelines for the changes they must make. The framework has been adopted only recently, Hofman stressed, and still awaits implementation.  But it contains some very valuable principles, which I gladly reproduce in full:

Guiding principles for the archival function in the digital age

  1. The business process is leading, information management or record keeping is supportive and should be integrated.
  2. The National Archives should be involved right from the beginning (e.g., the planning and design of business processes, underlying (information) architectures and supporting systems).
  3. Focus on all information (or records) of government; comprehensive approach both in scope and in time; not only on archival records (This includes the need to be aware that different types of information exist and that each of them may have a different value to different audiences).
  4. All connections/linkages of a record (concept of a record) should be accounted for.
  5. A systematic approach to record keeping should be used based on a risk management approach (At which moments are records most vulnerable?)
  6. Government information is public and freely available, unless … (This entails that the National Archives aims to ensure the right to information for the public [“the public interest], including both government and private sector information, while respecting privacy rights, freedom of information, etc.

In other words: the “archival function” comprises the entire lifecycle of all government records, and there are more players in this lifecycle than archives. This is a fundamental change from the old situation, in which archives would only be involved in those records which are intended to be kept.

Lots of food for thought, I should think. The only thing I would add from the perspective of the National Coalition is an appeal to look beyond the borders of the archival sector at the entire information space. As described earlier, issues such as the preservation of the web and social media may require a broader approach which includes libraries, data centers and other stakeholders, nationally and internationally.

The Dutch delegation includes, a.o., Jantje Steenhuis and Mies Langelaar (Rotterdam Municipal Archives), Kees Schabbing (North-Holland Province) and (behind them, at right) Reinder van der Heide (Dutch Parliament)


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