By Jonathon Davidson
Among the surviving very first things written by humans are a bunch of dried clay tablets that record how many purchases a customer had made from a merchant in the middle east around 4000 BC. This means that the earliest pieces of writing we have are small business archives. Go figures.
Please stop talking about ancient history. I’ve got about eight minutes tops.
Today’s national archives – that’s the National Archives of Australia (NAA), and in Australia also includes the National Library of Australia (NLA,) and its branches Trove and Pandora – consist primarily of good old paper. Eventually, once a central collection of records is around long enough to receive government funding (or is directly created out of funding), this provides safe permanent infrastructure and staffing to rely on, and after a few decades, these storage facilities become ‘the‘ national or state archives, and all stashed documents form the primary source documents of history. Each country has a different story behind its state and national archives and the buildings that hold them, but this is a general model.
Of worthy note is also the National Film and Sound archive.
Out there, somewhere, big boxes full of documents recording a fair chunk of everything that’s happened in the country still exist. We’ll get to digital and online archives shortly.
How are archives different from libraries though?
Libraries are different from archives for three reasons – they serve to educate, they include fiction, and they are public. Archives are not specifically bound to any three of these traits, though many notable archives are public and educational, like the NAA & Trove. In Australia, the NAA and NLA have come to work together – the NLA are a more imporant parent of Pandora and Trove than NAA are, despite them both constituting archives, so here the two exist under the same banner. Globally, the story of how libraries evolved from archives is actually pretty interesting if you’ve ever got a spare hour.
I’ll pass. Back up though – what is a primary source document?
It’s the term for any document – these days, that can be paper, digital, or a physical thing – which comes straight from a certain time frame. Those clay tablets I was going on about earlier are primary source documents for the study of early cities.
Okay. But why should the NAA & NLA be exempt from proposed funding cuts?
Well, there’s already a poor history of cultural institution funding in Australia that affects both the NAA and NLA, and thus all its side projects. At least one senate inquiry has come straight out and declared that the NAA deserve more funding. Interestingly, it’s no longer available on the APH website, but it has been archived by the NLA. Lucky, huh?
This funding battle between cultural institutions of all types in Australia and the residing governments and agencies who allocate funds to public services is a well established trend for librarians and archivists in Australia. A recurring theme of Australian information science and historical consortiums and conferences is the financial restrictions placed upon the Australian librarian and their reduced ability to offer the community valuable ends.
What kind of ‘valuable ends’ are you talking about though?
Well, without well funded archives and libraries – local history libraries are a strange mix of both, for instance – we literally wouldn’t have any kind of Australian identity. Man vs nature, the importance of sheep stations, the fact that early settlers produced light from those blackboy trees you aren’t supposed to break when you’re a kid, the suffering of women as a whole in early Western Australia and all over – all of that would be gone if it didn’t currently still exist in small libraries from Fremantle to Mundaring shire.
It isn’t just historians, though – the industries of law, medicine, government, media, and especially academia are all inherently dependent on archives and historical information. Environmental science literally depends on the very nature of observed change to establish itself. Research into rising obesity and climate change alike is only possible with a litany of prior data. You might not think about hospitals or lawyers until you need one – a lot of like archives, when you might suddenly want to research your family history – but you wouldn’t exactly want to walk around knowing that we had a big black hole when it came to those or any other areas.
This is what funding cuts to cultural institutions threaten – big black holes of knowledge – and Trove has already had to stop putting some of its stuff online and in-house. This isn’t new – back in 2012, Trove declared they couldn’t take anymore classified documents due to full storage.
If you ever got told about Lassiter’s reef as a kid, the stereotypes of widgitty grubs and bush fruit, the trials and tribulations of the ANZAC legends, landmark environmental protests, QLD’s repeated love affairs with koala culls, the Pinjarra massacre here in WA, the early days of Australian parliament – this all exists because it is still tangibly kept in boxes.
Isn’t it all digital now though?
Well, there are two big issues here – firstly, not yet. We’re a far way off from having everything digitised, even in major and urban libraries and archives. Of course, many libraries out there are working at going entirely online, and we’re getting better and better at making scanning an affordable, non-destructive and simple process – though logistically and financially, it is still a sci-fi dream for many regional libraries even as close as Mundaring.
If you want to go retrieve something from the NAA, you’ve still got to look up the item number on the catalogue, write that down, physically go to your nearest branch via transport, and wait while the archivist finds it. If you’re on the hunt for something truly obscure and deep within, you might have to pay for the staff’s time. So it’s not hard to see why digital initiatives are a big thing.
Secondly, however, the rate at which digital file formats and software packages upgrade and change, storing an old paper book inside a plastic seal somewhere in dark and cool conditions is still a more permanent solution than digital archiving. By the time you’re done scanning an entire catalogue online – that could take like six years – the internationally accepted standard of file storage might have just changed, meaning that if you don’t work at getting everything re-scanned, you’re going to be worse off than the old books in storage. This destroys documents more so and basically halts research because the entire library needs to shuffle on one foot at a time while it scans everything online. Ruminate on that whole issue for a moment, it’s a doozy.
So let’s assume that Trove and the NAA lose all funding. What happens if we don’t collect records?
If we didn’t collect records, we wouldn’t have any data to do anything with. Obviously we can sit here and dream up nightmare scenarios, but typically, there’s about a two-to-four decade gap between events happening and them becoming the objects of history. So, in 2050, a historian looking to write all about 2018 Australia might be hard pressed to find rich troves of information that are provided for 20th century Australia, and ultimately the nature of the past is skewed through a preventable scarcity of information.
Imagine if Australia had never taken a census, or if we had never kept track of prisoners to and from Australia in early colonial days – we wouldn’t have a history. We certainly wouldn’t have documents requesting arsenic to facilitate the extermination of Aboriginies in Broome. We wouldn’t have any sense of truth. It’s a hard concept to dance with, but here we are literally talking about the nature of our entire reality. Everything that makes up the primary school curriculum we are exposed to as children is made up on information that exists because it has been recorded over time. When it comes to national history matters, the collection of records is of utmost importance. This is why burning libraries was such a big deal.
Do we really need to be so self-serious about local history though?
STEM students typically ridicule anyone taking history – despite the fact the productivity commission recently came out and said that the country doesn’t actually need more STEM students – but anybody worth their salt knows that there is legitimate value to fostering a healthy historical database. Here it’s hard to ignore the fact that settlement led to the destruction of Indigenous histories in a matter of months, but that’s a different article.
This is how traditions like ANZAC day survive – the stories of survivors, but also documents upon documents – diary pages, military telegrams, patient transfer sheets, news clippings. The list goes on for every issue of every imaginable genre – medicine, immigration, statistics, government spending, arts funding, the cultural makeup of Australia, media, law… it’s something that you never really think about because you grow up with it for granted, but the stories and ideas that make up our identities are often ultimately stored in rows and rows of paper inside a building somewhere maintained by a handful of staff.
Right, right, but it’s not like 1940 anymore bro.
And with regards to potential funding cuts, that’s basically the problem leading to perceptions that archives have nothing to offer society.
There are four points here to discuss. Firstly, digital file formats change every 10 years, making digital storage a non-permanent solution. Secondly, many old documents kept in local libraries can’t be scanned because it will destroy them in the process. Three: we still don’t know a large amount of what happened in Australia on the local level as recently as fifteen years ago in any given case, meaning that historical research still needs to be done, and we have by no means “figured out” the full stories of our pasts. Finally, the only way we can make sense of new research is to compare it to old research. New facts are discovered, old theories are thrown out, new dates are celebrated instead.
So what are you saying?
Basically: there is still very real need today to keep and maintain shelves upon shelves of boxes stuffed full of paper and reels of film and audio.
To imply that the NAA pose immediate relevance to anyone while they drive down the highway on their way to work is obviously to lie, but like functioning legal and hospital systems, it doesn’t take long to realise how disallowing these organisations to operate at full capacity only goes to harm the people and not help them.