Notes from the 20th Anniversary of the National Archives and Records Administration Panel Discussion
Comments by Ian Wilson, National Archivist, Library and Archives of Canada
Friday, May 20, 2005
- Thank you... it is an honour to be invited to participate in these important celebrations.
- It is a testimony to the close relationship that exists and has existed between our two institutions over many decades.
- I was 7th national archivist in Canada since 1872. We preserve archivists as well as records!
- Best place for me to start is with the quotation over an entrance [no longer used] to NARA 1: "What is Past is Prologue" (Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1)
- A former Canadian Governor General, Vincent Massey, who was also appointed as Canada's first representative in Washington in 1926, used this quotation as the title for his Memoirs.
- It is a solid place to begin when contemplating the future. One standing joke beloved of archival after dinner speakers refers to the Washington taxi driver who was bringing a visitor to NARA and was asked what he thought that quotation meant. The response was instantaneous: "You ain't seen nothing yet." We should do some research on the origins of that comment as I heard it from one of my predecessors, Wilf Smith, in the 1970s but I suspect it predates him.
- "What is Past is Prologue" and "You ain't seen nothing yet" are appropriate texts for my remarks this afternoon.
- In terms of the past there are many aspects of NARA which provide the solid foundation on which an extraordinary future can be built:
- records management and the pioneering work in the ERA;
- the presidential libraries - their popularity and public role;
- the facilities at NARA 1 and 2 and your advances in preservation of the documentary media;
- the Charters of Freedom and the new exhibit you have just opened on the archival function in society, the publications and the very public face of NARA in the governmental and symbolic centre of Washington.
- In each of these and many others NARA is a world leader and all of us are looking to you to address the key challenges of our profession.
- In considering the prologue there are many aspects of the NARA program which you likely take for granted but which are essential to your and our future. I will focus just on two key, interrelated aspects:
First, the power of the record
- No institution demonstrates this better than NARA, with the Charters of Freedom foremost, visible and powerful in drawing crowds of students and tourists - now with the accompanying exhibit on the role the archival record plays in every day life.
- Other national archivists have been trying to find their equivalent star documents but none come close to the power of these charters underlying the concept of the American nation.
- Other governmental records are voluminous and essentially boring to those of us who work with them every day but we must not lose sight of the fact that whether these are in paper or electronic form, as maps or as photos, these records are the foundation of governmental accountability and the safeguard of human rights.
- Archbishop Tutu, in a powerful speech to an international audience in Cape Town in 2002 said: "The records are crucial to hold us accountable. They are indispensable as deterrents against a repetition of this ghastliness and they are powerful incentive for us to say, 'Never again'. They are a potent bulwark against human rights violations.".
- In Canada archival records were instrumental in understanding and facing difficult issues in our past, sometimes not too distant - slavery, head tax on Chinese Canadians, immigration policies, Japanese Canadians during WWII, aboriginal residential schools; and in some instances victims were able to obtain redress - Japanese Canadians, aboriginal residential schools.
- Legal force of documents re borders and boundaries, treaties and obligations, and other issues like pensions, citizenship, government decision making, and personal issues for genealogy, and identity.
- NARA Vision statement:
"The National Archives is a public trust on which our democracy depends. We enable people to inspect for themselves the record of what government has done. We enable officials and agencies to review their actions and help citizens hold them accountable. We ensure continuing access to essential evidence that documents the rights of American citizens, the action of federal (and other) officials, and the national experience".
- We cannot take archives for granted nor can we become so jaded with processing that we ever lose sight of the fundamental value of these records in our societies.
- Challenge is to have the confidence and assurance as archivists that the selection and preservation of official records as evidence is absolutely essential to a modern IT society, and to advance understanding internationally that archives are one of the essential institutions for a country which is trying to establish the infrastructure and habits of democracy.
- Effective IM and archives underlie the efforts of the World Bank and international agencies who are supporting improvements in governance in the developing countries.
- We must collectively work to ensure that archives, paper and e-archives, are supported as part of the fundamental infrastructure. This is the power of the record and we as archivists in national archival institutions must be the forceful advocates for the role of archives in society.
Second, the use of the record
- We must recognize that archives or documents have their real impact only when they are being used to stimulate thought or insight.
- In recent decades archivists have used the vocabulary of memory, the social memory.
- NARA Mission Statement:
- "NARA ensures, for the citizen and the public servant, for the President and for the Congress and the Courts, ready access to essential evidence".
- But archives only become the social memory to the extent they are drawn on and made public. Archives need to be an active force in our societal experience, being drawn on and used in the same manner individuals use their memory.
- Traditionally use has been the last thing archivists have considered: Already in the late 1980s, the SAA wrote this in their report on goals and priorities:
- It must become the first.
- The purpose of the archival endeavour is to develop and make accessible the official record in the proper context of its creation as evidence. The purpose of all we do - selection and appraisal, conservation, description has its ultimate justification in use.
- Appraisal - to fulfill our social responsibility for the integrity of the record, based on function, not on short term research trends.
- Description - for use or for control - there is need to control certainly but we must also find user friendly ways of presenting what we have.
- Web and strategies for the web - Even if we put a million pages on the Web for 10 years, we will have something like less than 1% of the Canadian national archives online. So we need a more selective and focused approach.
- First - tell citizens what we have, put online our inventories and a high level description of our collections, linked out into lower level detailed descriptions.
- Second - tell Canadians how to access it, through multiple channels, e.g. digitized copies, photocopies, microfilms, visits to a reading room.
- Third - put online the more frequently used materials.
- Fourth - develop exhibits.
- Fifth - develop educational models, modules linked to the curriculum. I was pleased to see in Mr. Weinstein's remarks upon being sworn in as the ninth archivist of the United States, that the creation, expansion, extension, and - where necessary - redesign of NARA's educational and public programming, was one of two great goals he invites what he calls the "NARA family" to commit over the next five years, the other one being the e-records initiative, a more internal goal.
- Services: on site and remote. How to reach people, where they live. Public libraries can play a tremendous role in this. Public libraries are in every community, in the heart of every town in Canada and the United States, in Britain and in many countries. Have you talked recently with a public librarian? At Library and Archives Canada we are making efforts to ensure that the reference librarians in each of those libraries know about our services, about our collections, know how to find their way around our website, how to use us, how to draw on us.
- Co-operation with others - The Web will enable us to recall that the past was a holistic place, the document, the artifact, the painting, the books, the historic site, the photos existed together, informed each other and collectively formed part of the holistic context of any historical action. The Web can enable us to overcome the territorial boundaries that have arisen over the decades when we broke up the past and ripped it apart and put some in museums and some in archives and some in libraries, some in historic sites. The web can enable us to overcome those boundaries and reassemble it in Web world. We do not need to merge our institutions to accomplish this, but we need to develop our institutional and national strategies in web world to harmonize search capabilities and enseure institutional walls disappear.