The Archive Olympics

At the ICA Congress, Brisbane
 Michael Loebenstein

NFSA CEO Michael Loebenstein reports from the International Council on Archives Congress in Brisbane.
The NFSA kiosk featured collection spotlights and a presentation of our cutting-edge digital collection management system, Mediaflex.

The International Council on Archives (ICA) Congress is best described as the ‘Archival Olympics’ – it happens every four years and attracts hundreds (in this case over a thousand) archivists, curators, record keepers and technology suppliers to discuss the state of play, the challenges faced by the profession and the opportunities arising from technological change.

While some of the Olympic disciplines haven’t changed in a century (or a millennium) the archival profession in the 21st century is marked by disruptive change. Day one of the congress was marked by the notion that the most dramatic change has occurred in regard to audiences, and the way archives are expected to communicate with the public. While in developed economies digital records management and databases have – at least in theory – largely replaced paper records and index cards, the service models employed by archives still revolve around a one-way communication model.
Kiosk envy! Our friends at the National Archives had a great idea and hooked up a couple of iPads for users to explore the archive’s web resources.

Social media has, according to both our friends at the National Archives of Australia and to the keynote speaker David Ferriero, 10th Archivist of the USA (what a job title!), fundamentally changed the way we conceptualise access to information, and the nature of the ‘past’, of ‘records’ and ‘heritage’. Contemporary examples range from Barack Obama’s push to use social media to enable people to connect with the White House, to the National Archives of Australia’s employment of geotagging, Web 2.0 technology and third-party platforms like Flickr and You Tube to not only present archival material but to facilitate two-way communication with users.

These are exciting topics for our small crew here – curators Meg Labrum and Sophia Sambono, our Head of Preservation Rod Butler, General Manager Sonia Gherdevich and myself. We are faced with similar expectations and are familiar with the question ‘why isn’t all of the collection digitised and available online?’ It is our aspiration to engage the public in more dynamic web-based experiences beyond our blogs encouraging comments and conversation, well-known social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and emerging platforms such as Historypin. Despite the NFSA’s continuing efforts it is a constant challenge to meet the demands of an increasingly tech-savvy public.
Getting up close and personal with an Aussie icon – the water or rainbow python (liasis fuscus).

Another big topic was the funding situation for archives. For various reasons archives need to become smarter in terms of conducting digitisation projects. Partnerships with the private sector – notably when it comes to community-based heritage or genealogical records – become more common, particularly in out-sourcing digitisation. Again a situation very familiar to us because we work closely not only with community groups (including remote Indigenous communities) in providing advice on safeguarding their collections but also with post-production houses and digitisation providers in Australia and overseas.

Last but not least the International Council on Archives made a passionate plea to acknowledge and support the Universal Declaration on Archives, a document reviewed by and endorsed last year by a large number of archives, including the NFSA.

The congress is attended by people from more than 60 nations – a great opportunity to showcase the ‘Australian way of life’ and our thriving archival sector. The exhibition hall thus not only features dozens of kiosks, including the one shared by NFSA and our technology partner TMD, but on opening night was home to a range of typically Australian critters. Much to their joy (and terror!) archivists from around the world could get up close and personal with a croc, pythons, goannas, blue-tongue lizards and a baby wombat.