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Dr. Peter Toebak

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Online-Publikationen 1994

The Archivist as Controller of Total Information (1994*)

von Peter Toebak

Inhalt

Introduction

Situational aspects

Organisational Solution

Project Organisation

Model

Regionalization

Conclusion

Introduction

Why is total information control for the archivist necessary and how it can be achieved? Archives have two faces, just like the classical Janus, the Roman god. A cultural historical one and an administrative one. I consider both of them of importance. However the chairman has asked me to restrict myself to the administrative aspect. You will not hear me discussing theory so much although theorizing is certainly meaningful. Practical examples are usefull as well in this context.

The time has passed that the municipal archivist could just concentrate on the inspection afterwards of the records management (incoming and outgoing documents) and the description, appraisal, destruction and filing of the (paper) documents at the various services. In the Netherlands he has the formal supervision over records and archives management within the whole municipal government.

Why that time has passed and why the traditional way of inspection has become too passive? Well, besides paper as medium, the automation process has created other media: magnetic tapes, floppy discs, optical discs, etc. The tenability of these is less secure and their data can easily be changed. This also gives rise to problems with respect to their evidence value. The luxury of waiting is over.

Situational aspects

Archival legislation is still very much based on paper archives, albeit by implication. A paper archives consists of three components: media, data and modes of access (such as registration plans, inventories); an archives of machine readable information has five: carriers, information, software, hardware and documentation. In both cases the media contain the information. In the first case, the information can be obtained directly, however in the second case the information can only be retrieved indirectly (hardware and software remain indispensable). Exactly this permanent dependance on technical systems makes the situation so complex and leads to operational problems in the border area between archives management and automation.

How does the archivist get a grip on these developments? Is it necessary to make changes in the organisation or is it mostly about aquiring a different working culture, about good contacts between the disciplines involved? I think that the one as well as the other is necessary. That is what we believe in Breda at any rate. (Just to give you an idea Breda is an historical city which is still growing, with 125.000 citizens at present and more than 150.000 citizens in the near future). In Breda we see the whole information process as a totality. In other words: if you want to cover the whole issue, then the archives, registry, automation and content workers must come to an agreement.

Organisational Solution

What are the consequences for the organisation? In view of the place of the archivist in the organisation of municipal government, there are various alternatives. A municipal archives could be a separate service, nevertheless its size compared to the other components of the organisation hardly justifies this. It could also be accommodated by a cultural service or a wellfare service, although this kind of construction does not really do justice to the existance and functioning of a municipal archives. When looking at the municipal government as a whole, an archives does not fit into any one policy segment. In order to bring out the archivists’ full competence the archives should be accommodated by a directing, central agency. Provided of course that the best and most agreeable option - full independance - is not possible.

What consequences does this have for the relationship between the municipal archives and the registry section or department? Is it desireable to have a combination of both? Certainly this has advantages. Two "archives" within the same organisation do little to promote clarity. The distinction between the two slowly fades because of the shortening of the terms of transfer and public access. More and more the Archives Act and Public Access Act are getting in line with each other. The methods of opening up and of supplying information differ only in part.

However, the construction has more disadvantages. The independance of the municipal archivist as a functionary "above the parties" comes under pressure and the municipal archives is being "swallowed up" by the (often) larger municipal records management body, as it were. Work for the „long term“ (municipal archives) is easily endangered by work for the „short(er) term“ (registry). The work for public access and history is liable to suffer from the day to day work that has to be done for the municipal organisation. Doubtless, the advantages of one labour process, from post registration till final filing in the archives repository, can be achieved effectively by other means, i.e. by substantial attunation.

In Breda the municipal archivist is responsable for the semi-static and static phases of the mentioned labour process since a few years. Here the archival input (records) is five hunderd of meters a year. The registry section reduces these to three hunderd of meters. The rest is transfered to the municipal archives, where it is further reduced to an historical sediment of one hunderd of meters. So, a great deal of the labour process indeed belongs to the archivist.

Project Organisation

In addition we have chosen for the following construction in Breda: the municipal archives is a department of the directing, central agency, totally separated from the registry section; but most importantly the municipal archivist functions as chairman of a project-group, which has to direct the documentary information and automation process within the total municipal government from the archivist’s point of view. What is worth keeping and making accessible in the interest of administration, law and history? And what is not? In order to achieve a manageable process, taking into consideration existing initiatives and developments and striving for support within the organisation, it is necessary to develop a vision and make some formal rules.

The municipal tasks will be catalogued and visualized on the basis of already existing classification schemes, acknowledging process responsibility of the different sectors, services and directorates (as "initiators" or process owners). On the basis of this articulation data management becomes possible, safeguarding documents as well as procedures. An explicit specification can be made beforehand, stating which paper and computerized data (files, series and systems) should be kept and which should be disposed of. After the accomplishment of an activity or transaction (case) only the "initiators" file needs to be completed and stored.

The theoretical and strategic model is made within the project-group, the further execution of the separate aspects is left to sub-working groups working by means of a steps plan. This model requires administrative and official, formal approval and it will take at least five years for it to be completed.

Model

It appears that in realizing the steps plan the following model will prove feasable. Every part of the organization is considered as a working station for policy and archives production. At regular intervals the files that are to be kept permanently or temporarily (computerized files and paper files), will be completed and put into a core records keeping system (per sector, service or directorate), where special rules apply with respect to description, appraisal, destruction, arrangement and to evidential and legal value of electronic files (validity, authorization, unbroken custody) as well.

Of course supplying information and passing it on to the working stations from the core records keeping systems remains possible. In this way a two way stream is created: of files and documents towards the core records keeping systems and of data and rules from the core records keeping sections. The managers of the core records (registry and automation) transfer their files in ten year blocks (paper documents) or in blocks of shorter periods (electronic files) to the municipal archives.

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Regionalization

In 1993 an important development was announced. The archives in the region around Breda (the region of Western Brabant) will probably be organized above local level, thereby involving various other towns and smaller municipalities (now there are 39, by 1996-1997 about 16 or 17). If this reorganisation actually takes place, we would get one county archives for the whole region of West Brabant, operating independantly. It will fullfil the function of archives depository for all the connected municipalities. However, in terms of archives organization and in technical terms nothing much will change. The working processes remain the same, as shown in the model: a (in fact two-sided) information stream (records and archives), an active inspection and a clear and well-defined attunation.

What advantages does a regional archives have for the connected municipalities? I will mention only two: the required basis ("critical mass") for an adequate archivistic support for the continuing automation process and a modernized vademecum function, by which one municipality can get information from the files and databases of the other municipalities through the regional archives (wenn authorized).

Conclusion

The archival field has two faces, as I said at the beginning of this lecture, but by no means does it have two separate interests. The reasons for preserving and accessing documents are various:

  • management (policy, administration, accountability, commercial relations)
  • law enforcement
  • civil rights
  • (political) control and public access
  • secondary use (re-using of data files for a purpose other than the original)
  • national heritage and culture

Luckily the cultural-historical aspect and the administrative aspect are in one line. With good archival-technical and organizational regulations much is already gained for the both. The purely technical aspects to do with preservation are certainly important and present us with problems, but for the time being I consider them of secondary importance. First of all a clear and workable setting is necessary, in which the municipal or regional archivist has a position with formal competences and real possibilities.


[*] Vortrag am 14. September 1994 (Tagung in Lancaster der 4th European Conference on Archives unter dem Titel "Archives: Strategies for Succes").