‘Challenge the past, set the agenda’
This year’s Archives & Records Association conference was hosted in Manchester, at the Deansgate Hilton Hotel – snazzy!
The conference had different strands for Archives and Records, Conservation, and Digital, and delegates could chose to attend a range of presentations, talks and workshops from across the strands. There was a huge amount of choice which made picking your sessions incredibly hard. (This is obviously not a bad thing, so credit to Andrew Nicholl and the Conference Organising Committee for putting together a fantastic programme). Day 1 for me was spent at the morning’s keynote speech and a panel session in the archives and records strand in the morning, and four different talks from the digital strand in the afternoon.
The keynote speech for day 1 was delivered by Dr Alan Billings, Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire. He spoke about the connection between the archive and social justice, connecting his speech to the miners’ strike 1984-1985, and the pivotal ‘battle of Orgreave’ in June 1984. Alan spoke of archivists as ‘heroes of the people’, the need for truth, and records as essential to identity, trust and healing amongst those involved. For the archivist tasked with cataloguing the Orgreave archive, there was a powerful message of trust in police record keeping, and trust in the archivist in maintaining the public’s trust; narratives of truth depend on an understanding of the archive, and the archivist must therefore be seen as impartial, and perceived as a trustworthy person by both the police and the public.
The Archives and Records panel session I attended in the morning included speakers Professors Luciana Duranti and Victoria Lemieux from the University of British Columbia, and Professor Giovanni Mitchetti from Sapienza University of Rome. The session was titled ‘Globalisation and the Archive Profession’, and the speakers spoke from the perspectives of professional associations, standards, and education. Duranti spoke about identity – individual, professional, organisations, social, and cultural – as being one of the most acclaimed yet most endangered concepts. Professional association identity, she noted, is a paradox. It is both collective and individual, it is both inward and outward looking, it is both defining and defined by culture, and it is enduring and dynamic. Identity is a process of small incremental creeps of change in what we do, how we do it, and why we do it – “change as a recognition of survival and growth”. Mitchetti spoke about issues with a global archive profession, as we are unable to attain a consistent definition of the archival profession due to inconsistent definitions of the activities and functions that make up the profession. Finally, Lemieux spoke about the need for a ‘transdiscipline’, a trend towards computational archival science as a discipline, which she identifies as already in progress, due to the increased technological knowledge amongst archivists infiltrating archival education programmes. With an interest in exploring the archival professional identity, I was pleased to see this themes raised. Professional association development and the influence of digital are usually linked to discussions about the archival professional identity, but I had not considered how inconsistent the language and definitions of the standards relating to archives are. These combined themes are definitely areas to read around further.
My afternoon in the Digital stream was split between hearing about web archiving, and records management.
In the web archiving sessions we heard from Jason Webber from the Web Archiving team at the British Library, and Maria Ryan, Joanna Finnegan and Della Keating from the National Library of Ireland (NLI). Webber spoke about the challenges and opportunities of archiving the UK web due to their ephemeral nature, and the limitations of archiving only the UK web which does not require a log-in. With this point brought to my attention. The ladies from the NLI spoke about their experience of web archiving in Ireland. It was interesting to hear that they were leading the web archiving from a Library, and one of the Irish speakers noted that “the only constant is change, or is that convergence?” – their experience has showed that a convergence of library and archival professionals is essential for web archiving.
In the Digital records management sessions we heard from Meic Pierce Owen from the Perth and Kinross Council, and Professor Sherry Li Xie from the Renmin University of China. Owen spoke about the digital wonderland landscape and the opportunities it offers to archivists and records managers, but he questioned whether the two are viewed from the outside as a strange partnership, or as difference, separate, with different needs and different perspectives. Xie spoke about human roles bring replaced by Artificial Intelligence, and whether we will be replaced by robots. Whilst I think that Xie is right in noting that we have never been serious about technological unemployment – being replaced by machines – I was very surprised to hear that a 2013 Oxford study on automation suggests that there is a 76% chance that archivists will be replaced by robots in the future. In my mind, ‘AI’ stands for ‘Archival Intelligence’, and I don’t think that is something that can be replaced by robots any time soon.
Day 1? Really interesting to see the kinds of topics that the speakers had brought to the conference on the theme of challenging the past and setting the agenda. I for one certainly want to challenge the possibility of being replaced by a robot! I do think that the archival community is a global community, but I do agree that we need to seek cohesive statements or definitions about our functions and activities.