|<> Access to archival records: A review of current issues: A RAMP study
General Information Programme and UNISIST
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Paris, July 1995
Recommended catalogue entry:
Access to Archival Records. A Review of Current Issues. A RAMP Study/prepared by Gabrielle Blais [for the] General Information Programme and UNISIST. -Paris: UNESCO, 1995. - (i)-(iii), 54 p.; 30 cm - (CII-95/WS/5)
I - Title
II - UNESCO, General Information Programme and UNISIST
III - Records and Archives Management Programme (RAMP)
© UNESCO, 1995
1 Factors influencing the consultation and dissemination of archival information
1.1 Democratization of archives
1.2 Privacy concerns
1.3 Non-traditional forms of records
1.4 The impact of technology
2. The changing nature of access and use
3. Enhancing awareness of archival holdings
4. Enhancing access and use of archival holdings
5. Costing of holdings and services
In order to better meet the needs of Member States, developing countries in particular, in the areas of archives administration and records management, the Division of the General Information Programme (PGI) has developed its RECORDS AND ARCHIVES MANAGEMENT PROGRAMME (RAMP).
The basic themes of RAMP reflect and contribute to the overall objectives of PGI. RAMP therefore includes projects, studies and other activities intended:
- to create awareness and promote understanding, among and within governments of Member States, of the value and usefulness of records and archives as basic information resources;
- to assist countries, upon request, in the organization and development of records and archives management systems and services necessary for the full and effective utilization of these basic information resources;
- to promote and assist in the advancement and dissemination of knowledge through the training of professionals in the field of archives and records management as the basis for solid archival policies and development.
RAMP activities concentrate on infrastructure development, development of strategies for archival training, assistance in the development of standard setting instruments, protection of the archival heritage, promotion of the development and application of modern information technologies and research in archival theory and practice.
This study, prepared by Gabrielle Blais under contract with the International Council on Archives (ICA), presents the complex problem of access to archives in a changing environment. Archives are confronted with three main challenges which affect their access: the renewed relationship between archives and their creator and user communities; the prominence of electronic media in records creation and administration process; the need to adopt efficient descriptive strategies.
Comments and suggestions regarding the study are welcome and should be addressed to UNESCO, Division of the General Information Programme (PGI), 7, place de Fontenoy, 75700 PARIS, France.
The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution of colleagues who have been instrumental in the writing of this study. Michael D. Swift, Assistant National Archivist at the National Archives of Canada, first approached the author with the proposal of writing this study. John McDonald suggested a framework for the study and commented extensively on early drafts; Terry Cook challenged the author's assumptions and provided, as he always does, stimulating ideas and concepts; and David Enns has continued to share the vision that he and the author have about public programming in archives. Elsie Freeman Finch and Tim Ericson provided useful direction in their comments of the initial plan for the study. Finally, Yves Marcoux and his colleagues at the Canadian Centre for Information and Documentation on Archives, at the National Archives of Canada, supported the author's search for information in their usual efficient and comprehensive manner.
Archives have always been concerned with memory and the present. Although archival records are evidence of past occurrences and transactions, they remain a living instrument of today's society. As a witness to human thoughts and actions, and a compendium of the underpinnings of societal rules and mores, they provide reference points for our daily lives and enrich our collective memory. This has been evident in recent years as archival information has been used to bridge the previously severed historical continuum of many nations. Never before have archives been so sought for evidence of past wrongs against indigenous or aboriginal peoples, ethnic minorities, and wartime victims. Never before have they so helped citizens face an uncertain future where technology and increasing deterritorialization question the traditional foundations of community life and values.
Technological advances also challenge our traditional archival practices and provide opportunities for improved archival service. The future of archives will be determined, in many ways, by the extent to which they are able to display their expertise in interacting with both information providers and users within a technologically driven "information society."
This RAMP study will focus on the need for archives to review their approaches and practices in the provision of researcher access services. It will address the social and technological changes that are prompting a transformation in archival work, and propose strategies for the delivery of access programmes that render records more readily available, usable, and understandable.
<> 1. Factors influencing the consultation and dissemination of archival information
<> Democratization of archives
1.1 The 1980s witnessed radical transformations in the governing systems of many countries. With the emergence of new democracies, whole political systems were replaced, most often with hybrids which combined local visions of governance and models from other countries. Among many factors for change, these events reflect the long evolution of the concept of the citizen's right-to-know which, aided by technological advances that have broken down communication barriers, has redefined principles of governance.
1.2 In North American and Western European countries, the citizen's right-to-know had earlier been formalized in legislation proclaiming the individual's right of access to information created and held by government bodies. The United States' Freedom of Information Act, first passed in 1966, inspired many countries to adopt similar laws. Where access rights were not legislated, regulations were often liberalized to limit the span of possible exemptions to access and as well as the period set for full disclosure.
1.3 This approach was later complemented by the notion of accountability. Governments are now expected to accept responsibility for their actions and for their interventions in the lives of citizens, and to be able to demonstrate (by recourse to accurate records) that they have fulfilled their legislated and legal obligations. This principle has two major philosophical underpinnings: decision-making has to be marked by a clear trail of evidence and government actions have to be executed in an unbiased, efficient manner.
1.4 These two factors have had an impact on the way in which the decision-making process is documented and how this documentation is managed. Information management practices have been considerably revised to address this new environment. The concept of corporate memory, which relates to information needed by institutions at a given time to do their job, requires the implementation of proper information management practices. The goal is to ensure that only relevant information is created and kept, and that systems are developed to manage that information so that it is easily accessible. Sceptics have claimed that access legislation and regulations have had an opposite, "chilling effect," on record creation, and that in fact the record is less candid than it should be.
<> Privacy concerns
1.5 An unexpected consequence of increasing access rights has been the emerging conflict between principles of open access to information and the protection of personal privacy. Often, rights of access imply intrusions into the personal lives of individuals. This is most common where personal and other information has not been segregated by record creators. These two principles must be balanced to ensure that individuals are not unjustly harmed by disclosure of information and that their rights to privacy are maintained.
1.6 In recent years, this issue has become prominent as records containing extensive personal information have been made public. In many cases, the existence of these records was never intended to be known since they were never meant to be released. A notable example of this is the records of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic's secret police. Over many years, this agency maintained extensive records on its own citizens. Information about individuals - often provided by friends and family - was collected. The records were then used to monitor the activities of perceived enemies of the government." When the regime collapsed, the records were made available to the individuals who were the subjects of such files. As a result, some East Germans learned first hand about the state's intrusions into their lives, as well as about the role played by some family members and close friends. This situation caused much personal turmoil for the individuals who were the subject of the files, as well as for those who had provided information at a time when such an action was condoned and even encouraged by governing authorities.
1.7 A complicating factor to the upholding of privacy rights are the possibilities for intrusion into individuals' private lives made possible by the manipulation of technology. Capabilities for data-matching in automated systems have resulted in the development, in some countries, of regulations to protect the use and dissemination of personal information and, especially, common personal identifiers or numbers. The European Community has made major strides in this field with the planned adoption of a Directive on Data Protection. These guidelines are intended to provide a common level of data protection among members of the European Community. Given the Community's influence internationally, the guidelines are expected to have a significant impact on the evolution of privacy policies worldwide.
1.8 Currently, many nations are attempting to provide maximum protection of personal information through various initiatives. The concept of the individual's right of ownership over his/her own personal information wherever it is located - is gaining prominence. The extent to which this principle will be respected, however, is hard to predict. In some countries, for instance, studies have been undertaken to develop electronic "smart cards" containing personal data which would be held by individuals and made available to governments only when transactions occur. Such an instrument would impose greater limitations on the use of personal information by governments as, it is estimated, there would only be one major personal database to which officials could gain access but under strict controls. Concurrently, if kept, this database would provide a valuable archival record of government-citizen interaction.
<> Non-traditional forms of records
1.9 Current initiatives in the field of privacy are just one example of society's uneasiness in the face of technological change. In the case of archives, not only is the "shape" of information being redefined, so are the approaches adopted to manipulate it. The invention of other physical formats for records has provided new ways of creating, controlling, disseminating, and gaining access to information.
1.10 It has taken many decades for archives to confront the problems associated with the widening media field. For years, evolution within that field was relatively slow and predictable. Since textual paper records remained the dominant archival artifact, archives did little to accommodate other media such as documentary art, maps, photographs, and films. Description of records usually focused on textual paper records, with vague mentions of other media. In instances where other forms of records were voluminous, segregation and subsequent description using methods borrowed from other disciplines, such as museology and librarianship, were the norm. Providing effective access to these records was an even lesser concern, which may explain why to this day these records are still predominantly used to illustrate research rather than nourish it.
1.11 Yet, non-textual records had been acquired by archives for decades. During the 1950s, the advent of television and refinements to the printing process which reduced the cost of publishing photographs, increased the use of visual material. Non-textual non-paper archival collections, consequently, grew in size and importance within archives. But it was not until these records started being requested by large groups of researchers that archives had to face the challenges associated with conserving and diffusing nontraditional formats.
1.12 With non-paper records, access is as much a question of technology as of context and content. In the case of audio-visual records, for instance, the variety of available formats requires that archives housing such records provide the specialized equipment to permit access to the information, or continually migrate their holdings forward to the most recent storage formats and technology readers/interpreters. This equipment is not only specialized, but also transitory, as new formats are introduced and the technology is rapidly transformed. The same can be said for photographs and electronically generated information. As a consequence, archives must constantly re-format information, upgrade technology, and sometimes even maintain museums of artifactual equipment. Few archives have the resources to do so.
1.13 Intellectual retrieval practices must also be refined. It has been argued that researchers interested in artistic, photographic, and audio-visual records are item-driven. The focus of their search is a particular event, site, or person. They may also be interested in the record-creating process or history of the medium. For as long as these user groups remained relatively small, it was possible for archives to undertake extensive research to locate the items of interest. In many places, this is no longer possible, however, as other researchers have shown an interest in non-textual archives as key evidential records for the modern era.
<> The impact of technology
1.14 Recent technological developments will complicate this state of affairs. In the last few decades, the conjecture of technology and information has given birth to new types of documents that are solely in electronic form. Avra Michelson and Jeff Rothenberg have used the term "information technology" to describe the "computing and communications technology used to obtain, store, organize, manipulate, and exchange information. At an earlier time this information would have been recorded on one of the many other physical, paper-based, formats familiar to archives. But given the great flexibility of information technology, creators are steadily moving to an electronic environment.
1.15 The proliferation of this technology has caused an "electronic information revolution" which is transforming the way people do their work and, as David Bearman has stated, is leading to new "practices of communication and to new forms of records. Like the telephone had done earlier in the century, it is redefining the nature of human interaction and imposing new forms of "orality" to social exchanges. Above all, information technology enables the free flow of information between individuals, organizations, countries, and continents.
1.16 These developments have forced archivists to revisit basic principles and practices. Probably the greatest challenge relating to electronic records is the fact that they rarely attain a finite state, as they can constantly be updated, unless archives intervene. The information can also be merged, manipulated, and transformed. Often, electronic records provide evidence of the process more than of the actual transaction.
1.17 Because electronic information is so easily transportable and exchangeable, it has been difficult to incorporate it into existing record keeping systems that were developed for permanent, textual, paper records. Indeed, electronic records in organizations often are placed under the custody of automation professionals while paper records remain with records managers. If this electronic information is to be permanently preserved, archives will have to adopt new strategies that focus more on timely interaction with records creators and possibly the sharing of custodial responsibilities.
1.18 In its current manifestation, electronic information in many ways ressembles the oral transaction. It may be argued that archives are entering a period of "neo-orality" where much of the transaction loses its preciseness and becomes more symbolic of the inter action It consequently will be even more important for archives to determine the criteria by which records ought to be kept. They will also have to place information in context so that researchers understand the information to which they are gaining access. Furthermore, given the plethora of records available to the technology literate, archives have to be able to guide users in the best use of available sources.
1.19 This situation will be compounded as drastic changes occur in the media base of archives. Increasingly, records that were traditionally on various media will be created electronically. Furthermore, some copying devices such as optical discs will allow for the merging of textual and other records. Already "compound" (i.e. multimedia) documents challenge the traditional descriptive practices of archives and force a more global, generic, and contextual approach to the creation of reference tools.
1.20 Technology is also transforming the way in which research is conducted. During the 1960s and 1970s, researchers limited their "computing" work to the preparation of indexes and similar retrieval tools, the conversion of textual material to machine-readable form, as well as the writing and editing of text. Such "end-user computing" was transformed radically with the introduction of personal computers and the greater accessibility to easily manipulated software packages. Added to this are the possibilities presented by hypermedia tools which enable access to records that used to reside on various physical formats.
1.21 Researchers are now able to devise their own search strategies, manipulate information in new ways, and study issues which previously would have been difficult to address due to the quantity and structure of the data. They expect off-site access to a variety of sources which they can manipulate, share, and discuss with colleagues from all over the globe, and transfer to other colleagues who may manipulate that same information for their own research purposes. In doing so, researchers are of course also creating their own records.
1.22 Archives are also confronted by new research approaches. On-line access to bibliographic databases has increased the scope of information-gathering processes. Archives will be pressured to complement this with on-line access to the information itself - an objective that may be impossible to reach for some years. This will require that a careful selection be made of what will be offered through electronic document delivery systems. As a participant in the process, archives will have to be knowledgeable of the permutations of research, which will increasingly be based on electronic information net working. Concurrently, transitory or "legacy" systems will have to be maintained for those users who either cannot use technological tools or do not have access to them.
<> 2. The changing nature of access and use
2.1 Principles of access to archives have evolved over time. As Michel Duchein explained in his RAMP study on obstacles to the access, use, and transfer of information from archives, before the nineteenth century, access to archives was strictly controlled and limited. Since archives existed primarily to serve the legal needs of records creators, their use was limited to the bureaucracies that controlled them. The only exceptions were those countries influenced by democratic movements and in which access rules were somewhat relaxed. To this day, creators of records have remained an important user group in archives, as the collective memory of organizations is consulted for a variety of reasons from documenting past decisions to developing a sense of corporate identity.
2.2 The nineteenth century witnessed a gradual and cumulative opening of public archives to historians in European countries. Over time, this situation nourished an intimate relationship between historians and the custodians of archival records. Indeed, both professions came to be trained within the same discipline: academic history. This reality has continued to this day in some countries. In others, and particularly in North America, archival graduate education programmes began to be established in the 1980s and have come to be seen as the future ideal for training new archivists.
2.3 It is undoubtedly true that historians and their students remain valuable clients of archives, for two key reasons. On the one hand, they are responsible for providing leadership in the area of historical research. This implies that the profession is expected to use archives to delve into those issues that are central to a society's collective memory. On the other hand, their work provides, sometimes inadvertently, the intellectual fabric from which historical knowledge is expressed or "trickled down" to more general audiences through occasional best-sellers by historians themselves, and more often by the work of others through school textbooks, popular or journalistic history, films, plays, television, and even opera. In doing so, historians provide learned interpretation - and consequently increased worth - of the documentary heritage. In recent years, historians have been joined by colleagues from other academic disciplines in these endeavours.
2.4 In the last few decades, however, other types of researchers have joined academics in their use of archives, and archivists, because of their natural bias to historians, have sometimes been slow to acknowledge this change. The place of archives in society has consequently changed. As Bernhard Vogel has so well stated, "Les archives ne sont plus la "mémoire" de ['administration, elles tendant (sic) de plus en plus a devenir une entreprise de services pour le citoyen. Among these "citizen-users," the most important group consists of family historians. For those countries populated as part of the great human migrations of the last few centuries, family history is being used to recreate the historical continuum. In this context, family history - or genealogy - differs considerably from the traditional search for "pedigree. In recent years, interest in family history has expanded from looking for family roots to exploring the related social and economic environment in which the family lived. The link between family and local history, consequently, is close. And since every citizen is a potential family historian, the prospect for growth among this researcher group is great.
2.5 Interest in family history is not prominent in all countries. In Russia, for instance, the genealogical tradition is more scholarly than popular, with an emphasis on the study of heraldry and the search for aristocratic roots. Nonetheless, there is a strong tradition of keeping vital statistics of an official nature from which much genealogical information may be obtained. The Australians have never had a sizeable genealogical community, in part, some say, because of the desire to hide or obscure the linkage of many citizens to convict settlers. As for China, genealogical information in private possession was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, either by the Red Guard, or by the frightened families themselves. In certain countries, archival records do not lend themselves well to such research; in other cases, records of interest to genealogists are not permanently preserved.
2.6 Archives are also increasingly consulted by "professional" researchers who seek answers to specific questions. They include lawyers, publishers, journalists, environmentalists, criminal investigators, etc. In all of these cases, these individuals have kale interest in the research process per se. They turn to archives to resolve specific issues or to locate specific pieces of factual information; in most cases, they will never be repeat visitors.
2.7 There is another, less homogeneous group, which Paul Conway has described as "avocational" researchers. These individuals are willing to "pursue their interests in greater depth over a longer period of time than more focused personal researchers." Their research queries vary and include subjects such as prominent historical events, for instance the American Civil War, and other topics such as shipwrecks, military events and related artifacts, unidentified flying objects, railway lore, and abandoned gold mines. Indeed, the interests of avocational researchers are as diversified as the holdings themselves. Avocational researchers are motivated by personal curiosity; archival information is only one step in the process they choose to gain understanding of an issue. This research community may increase radically in the coming years as communication technologies facilitate electronic grazing from home facilities.
2.8 Finally, a significant percentage of archives users consist of archives staff who need to consult records on a regular basis to perform their custodial and reference work. It is difficult to gauge the impact of this user group as most archives do not monitor access to holdings by their own staff. Furthermore, access policies and procedures for staff are often unclear or unexistent.
2.9 Traditional assumptions concerning archival research started changing in the 1980s when systematic reviews of the use made of archival information, and of the users themselves, were undertaken. The motives for initiating such "user studies" were both administrative and operational. For one, archives were starting to be affected by the resource implications resulting from providing access to a multiplicity of records for increasingly diverse user communities. In line with this growth and diversity, researcher expectations in the area of reference services were starting to shift, thus forcing archives to review their own acquisition, control, and access practices.
2.10 American archivists were the first to show an interest in conducting user studies. Influenced by seminal works written by Bruce Dearstyne, Paul Conway, Elsie Freeman, Mary Jo Pugh, and Lawrence Dowler, many embarked on systematic studies of their research clientèles and research uses of their holdings. The first major user study was undertaken by the National Archives of Canada in 1984 as part of its programme evaluation cycled This study, probably the most extensive ever conducted in the international archival community, led to an important restructuring of the institution where reference activities were centralized.
2.11 User studies can be structured to answer a variety of questions. Bruce Dearstyne's framework addresses six areas: tracking and studying research use, interpreting and reporting on the significance of that use, promoting increased use, emphasizing use as a means of garnering programme support, reaching out to the researcher community as a partner in dealing with difficult archival problems, and expanding the concept of reference service to a broader notion of researcher service, or public service. Paul Conway offers a model that assesses three elements of reference services: quality - how well archivists understand and meet the information needs of their users, integrity - how well archivists balance their obligations to preserve materials against their obligations to make them available, and value - the effects of use on individuals, groups, and society as a whole.
2.12 Other user studies can focus on specific questions. David Bearman conducted a study of "user presentation language" in which all types of inquiries from patrons and staff were recorded in a number of American institutions on a given day. The objective was to address two problems identified in previous studies: that "they ignored the large number of questions that are posed by staff, and they (other studies) recorded profiles of users, but not the contents of their questions, thus leaving us with some knowledge of who users are, but only prejudice about what each category of user might want." Ann D. Gordon, on the other hand, conducted a study to "find out how historical researchers gain access to sources and what obstacles they encounter." In all cases, these works were intended to make archives reflect on the effectiveness of their own practices as these affect researchers.
2.13 User studies to date have tended to confirm archivists' assumptions concerning their users. For one, academic researchers make up only a small percentage of an institution's clientele. Furthermore, scholars depend to a great extent on the "academic grapevine" to identify sources of interest. Finally, a significant proportion of scholarly work is done altogether without consulting primary sources.
2.14 In most cases, it was reported that the proportion of clients whose background or research purposes cannot be easily identified continues to grow. They are the avocational researchers to whom Paul Conway has referred. Many are attracted to archives because of the inherent possibilities for research that their holdings present. Others are curious about what services archives can provide. Unfortunately, archives have yet to assess their own services in light of these user needs. And by upholding traditional access practices, they impose greater research obstacles for these users.
2.15 User studies have also pointed to some important weaknesses in the tools archives have used to make information available. Current descriptive and access practices can only support research environments in which archivists actively mediate the request-response scenario. Finding aids, which are often records-specific, do not provide enough contextual introduction to the records to enable independent research. Furthermore, archives' fractured approach to description has lead to fractured approaches to research. This is an environment with an in-built assumption of low use and even lesser quality of service. It has even been argued that archivists prepare finding aids in such a fashion that an archivist's intervention is always necessary.
2.16 User studies have also confirmed the changing patterns of archival research. Increased costs in travel and the proliferation of communication tools have decreased on-site visits to repositories. Increasingly, researchers prefer to consult holdings in their home locations. In some cases, telecommunication tools must be used; in others, traditional technology such as microform can effectively satisfy these needs. At the very least, researchers expect to be able to limit their stay at a repository to a minimum by being able to prepare for their visits in advance.
2.17 Some users are less interested in consulting actual documents than in having access to the information they contain. In such cases, archives are called upon to manipulate information to suit client needs. Expectations that archives can provide the same services as photographic stock-shot operations, where a particular image and caption can be provided within hours, is an example of such expectations. These services, when offered, are cost and labour intensive and lend themselves to user fees.
2.18 Given the results of user studies conducted to date, it has become imperative for archives to take time to examine the makeup and needs of their potential and existing user groups, and compare them with the services they currently provide. These services must be adjusted regularly so that users are provided with the tools necessary to exploit successfully available resources. Finally, as a member of the greater information community, archives must participate fully in the development of communication technologies that will eventually "carry" the information they hold to the world beyond their institutional doors.