HHistorians call this an international embarrassment for Australia and say it is “inconceivable that it has come to this” as they preemptively mourn the loss of “irreplaceable national history”.

The National Archives of Australia doesn’t often make the headlines, but when it does, it’s rarely good news.

Last year, he lost a years-long legal battle to keep the Palace Letters a secret – a mine of correspondence between the Governor General of Australia and the Queen’s Private Secretary before the dismissal of Australia’s Prime Minister. era, Gough Whitlam, in 1975.

As the institution – which is required by law to preserve Australian government agency records – licked its financial wounds from the costly legal battle, it received another blow in this month’s federal budget, which largely ignored a “digital cliff” the archives faced.

Last week it was revealed that the archives had used the launch of a crowdfunding site in a final attempt to raise tens of millions of dollars to digitize disintegrating historical documents.

The crowdfunding push has outraged Australian archivists and historians and raised questions about the value Australia places on its national history.

A digital cliff

In March, an internal review of the archives found that they were not meeting their legal obligations due to underfunding. Tune review revealed that there were 361 km of risky audiovisual material – including magnetic tapes, cellulose acetate prone to vinegar syndrome, and film negatives – some of which will be beyond salvage. from 2025. This figure has since risen to 384 km. .

At the current rate of digitalization of archives of 0.26 km per year, it would take 1,400 years and $ 5.2 billion to digitize the entire collection.

Instead, the review proposed a seven-year, $ 67.7 million initiative to urgently digitize what it saw as the highest priority documents. Despite desperate pleas from the archives in the weeks leading up to the budget, he did not receive the required injection.

Video recordings of Australia’s early Antarctic explorations, spy surveillance footage from Asio, audio recordings of the Royal Commission on the Stolen Generation and High Court Indigenous Title Tribunal hearings, as well as war speeches Prime Minister John Curtin is now in danger of being lost.

Damaged material from the national archives.
Damaged material from the National Archives. Photograph: National Archives of Australia

Michelle Arrow, associate professor of modern history at Macquarie University, criticizes government funding for the archives, as well as what she believes has been the institution’s lack of planning decisions in recent years.

“It should be an international embarrassment for Australia,” she said. “Normally the public service is not supposed to make a plea like this.

“If you think about the scale of the task, it’s still huge. They have to do this because there have been systematic funding issues for these institutions, but the digital cliff has been looming for archives for many years.

Arrow noted that the archive has stepped up its campaign for more funds to be digitized this year. In 2015, the National Film and Sound Archives launched its working document on the 2025 deadline, and successfully lobbied for additional funds to digitize key collections.

While Arrow understands the impossibility of digitizing all of the risky documents, she fears that the “irreplaceable national history” may still be lost even if the $ 67.7 million could be raised for the digitization prioritization plan, because of the masses of ministerial documents dumped on the archives of government agencies.

“We just don’t know what hardware is out there, it’s not all in their computer catalog. I suspect that most of this stuff, we’ll never know what we’ve lost, and it’s unsettling.

She said the Archives had become known for their reliance on “a family historian model,” charging up to $ 250 to scan a document into a file in the hope that it might contain relevant family history.

However, this prioritizes some material being digitized, and with the crowdfunding push, Arrow says it risks losing important records.

“Often, donors have a vested interest in maintaining some things and not others … We don’t know what researchers might want to know in the future.”

A vinyl record that disintegrates.
A vinyl record that disintegrates. Photograph: National Archives of Australia

Arrow says this lack of searchable capacity for the files resulted in lengthy requests for document retrieval, recalling his failure to access letters sent to Whitlam’s women’s counselor Elizabeth Reid.

“Reid was the first female advisor to a national leader anywhere in the world. We know she has received many letters and we know they are somewhere in the archives. I haven’t been able to find them, hope someone will find them someday.

‘A problem of priorities’

Jenny Hocking, professor of history at the National Center for Australia Studies at Monash University, led the legal battle that forced the archives to release the letters from the palace.

She believes the archives’ determination to protect the palace letters came at the expense of digitization.

“It is extraordinary that they went to so much trouble to keep these letters out of the public eye, especially now that the cost was well over the roughly $ 1 million in legal fees, it is closer to 2 million dollars because they had to pay mine. “

Tune review revealed that approximately $ 900,000 each year of the $ 6 million archival capital budget is spent on digitization.

The woes of the archives are
The woes of the archives are “extremely embarrassing,” says historian Jenny Hocking. Photograph: National Archives of Australia

“It’s not a very edifying spectacle to see them resort to crowdfunding following the legal battle. Those two things are not going well, ”said Hocking, author of a book on his legal battle and the content of the letters.

“I have immense respect for the archives, and it is deeply disturbing to see this. I still can’t believe it, it’s almost inconceivable that it has come to this.

Another questionable choice made by the archives, in Hocking’s mind, is the decision to enter a Four-year, $ 10 million contract to digitize war records. She believes other Commonwealth institutions, such as the National Film and Sound Archives or the War Memorial, which has received $ 500 million in federal funds for redevelopment, should share the burden of digitization.

“You don’t suddenly face a cliff of $ 67.7 million overnight. The problem is not with the legislation, what they have to do is a problem with the priorities.

“It is extremely embarrassing, it is an international disgrace that our National Archives are resorting to passing the hat on to protect $ 67 million in material. It’s just impossible to raise all of this through crowdfunding, and they and the government know it, ”Hocking said.

The digital future

Nicola Laurent, president of the Australian Society of Archivists, believes that the current financial difficulties of the National Archives should trigger a discussion about how the documents of the department are archived.

The National Archives are an institutional member of society, but they also include university archives and private school archivists.

Laurent is disappointed with the need for crowdfunding and ties it to the approach of charging high fees to anyone looking to retrieve and scan a document.

“It’s always the people who have to fund the archives in a way that doesn’t seem appropriate,” she said.

She wants to see legislative changes to increase access to archives, as well as a longer-term reflection on how documents are collected from ministries.

“Digital preservation is almost always more difficult than preservation on paper because formats change and you have to save yourself, change file formats and make sure files aren’t corrupted.

“It’s the legislative method that requires file-by-file publishing, which means so much doesn’t become accessible.

“Disposal has to be done at a higher level by the agencies, they donate such large sums and there is no good mechanism for that, because the law dictates what the archives should keep.”

Laurent noted a figure created by government agencies 2,986 terabytes of digital documents in 2019 and 92,966 meters of shelf of physical documents.

Arrow says more material needs to be extracted from it before the archives receive them and cannot get rid of them.

“Sometimes you open a file and it has four copies of a letter,” Arrow said.

Attorney General Michaelia Cash, whose portfolio is responsible for the archives, previously said the government will respond to the Tune review later this year.

The Guardian has requested an interview with Fricker or another member of the National Archives. A spokeswoman said no one was available.

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