70th anniversary of the appointment of the first archives officer, Ian Maclean

Presentation by Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts to mark the 70th anniversary of the appointment of the first archives officer, Ian Maclean, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Tuesday 9 December 2014

It's a real joy for me to be here this morning at what must be one of my favourite institutions in the portfolio and it's an important event we commemorate today because as Louise [Doyle] has said on the 30th of October 1944 Ian Maclean took up appointment as Archives Officer at what was then called the Commonwealth National Library. Born in New Zealand, he was then 24 years old and had been serving as a lieutenant in New Guinea. Maclean was a recent graduate in history from the University of Melbourne. He had been identified as a suitable candidate for the job from a short-list of young men who had recently passed the Diplomatic Cadets examination. His selection as Archives Officer took his career, and his life, in an entirely different direction. Indeed, the National Archives of Australia can trace its descent, through an unbroken line of evolving organisations, from that day in 1944 which we commemorate today.

Maclean's appointment was a defining moment in the history of the National Archives, but in order to understand it, it is important to go back a few steps to trace the often faltering progress towards developing a national archives for our country.

During World War I, an Australian War Records Section was established in London. Complex arrangements were in place for collecting, storing and transporting tens of thousands of records and objects to Australia. They formed the basis of the establishment of the Australian War Memorial in 1919.

In the 1920s the War Memorial was by default the sole Commonwealth agency with a statutory duty, under its Act of 1925, to take custody of Commonwealth records. The Commonwealth National Library under its Director Kenneth Binns was also keeping the archives issue alive. In 1927 the Library put forward an Archives Bill, the first attempt to devise an archives system for Australia, under which departments would have to consult with a 'Commonwealth Archivist' before destroying records. However, before it reached Parliament the government fell and Australia slid into Depression. So the Archives Bill fell and was never revived.

Finally, the outbreak of World War II gave force to a campaign to preserve records: important administrative records of World War I had been lost, and Binns urged that this must not be allowed to happen again. A War Archives Committee was formed. In February 1943 the Prime Minister, John Curtin, approved both the Memorial and the Commonwealth National Library as joint archival authorities, and for the appointment of an 'Archives Officer' to be attached to the staff of the Library. John Treloar, Director of the War Memorial, decided to appoint an Archives Officer to the War Memorial as well, with responsibilities for not just military records but records of the Service Departments, Repatriation and Home Security.

It took a considerable amount of time to arrange the Library's Archives Officer because the best candidates were in the army and it was a complex process to get them released. Treloar, back in uniform himself by then, managed to get his Archives Officer appointed first: Axel Lodewyckx took up his appointment at the Memorial three months before Ian Maclean's appointment in October 1944. By 1946 Lodewyckx had returned to the Victorian Public Library building a distinguished career there and at the University of Melbourne Library. He and Ian Maclean cooperated in the brief time Lodewyckx worked at the War Memorial, and it is interesting to reflect how Australian archival history might have developed if these two talented men had kept working in collaboration.

In 1956 the War Memorial lost its status as an archival authority, becoming the custodian of war and war-related records only. However, as the Memorial's responsibilities declined, that of the 'Archives Division', as it was known, of the Library grew. This was a time, of course, before the National Library of Australia was separate from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library.

By 1952, when it became Australia's sole archives authority, it had 25 staff and repositories in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. The Division did not gain its independence from the Library, however, until 1961 when new legislation was passed establishing the Commonwealth National Library as the National Library of Australia, leaving the Archives Division as the Commonwealth Archives Office under the portfolio of the Prime Minister's Department.

Late in his life Maclean observed, in an interview with historian Hilary Golder, that Australia's national archives really began with one young man in the corner of an office in Parliament House, reading his way through the standard archives text of the day, Hilary Jenkinson's Manual of Archives Administration. And it's interesting to reflect from a maelstrom of exciting political events that no doubt surrounded the young Ian Maclean as he studied away at Hilary Jenkinson's Manual of Archives Administration his thoughts of earlier days.

In that work, he would have read that distinguished archivist, warning his readers that mistakes in past archival practice were due to 'a failure on the part of the Archivist to treat Archives as a separate subject'. The archivist, Jenkinson insisted, is not and ought not to be an historian. Yes, he would need some knowledge of history and may be personally interested in it, 'but his duty is to his Archives', according to Jenkinson, independent of any research use to which the archives might be put.

Ian Maclean became a leader in the archives profession in Australia at a time when it was separating itself from both librarianship and history, and proclaiming its core value: detachment. The archivist was not an expert in the content of the records but in the context of their creation and use. It was, and is, the archivist's task to safeguard the impartiality and authenticity of the records for which they are responsible.

These were fine ideals, but what was Ian Maclean actually expected to do? A very great deal. As was revealed by his duty statement:

Ensure the preservation and organisation of archives, to keep contact with all Federal Departments … to ascertain their problems … to advise and help them … and to recommend (for submission to an archival authority) whether records proposed for destruction may be destroyed. So although not a historian himself, the Archivist was in a sense a gatekeeper of history because he was the ultimate authority of what might, or might not, be destroyed.

While a neat and practical description of the role of the archivist, the challenges faced by Maclean and his staff were enormous. Because records only began to be transferred in the late 1940s, there was a huge backlog of records going back to Federation that had to be appraised. That not everything could be kept was obvious from the start. Photographs from the 1950s show Archives Division staff at work in rooms full of records piled high in apparent chaos. The aim was to preserve those records that most directly documented the government's policies, practices and impact. A records survey in Sydney and Melbourne in 1950–51 saw mountains of records classified, some for destruction, some for semi-permanent retention and some for permanent retention.

Given these challenges, only more slowly could questions of access; of expanded storage capacity in Canberra and the states; and of legislative powers be considered. Maclean remained Chief Archives Officer until 1968, when his career took him to other archives and other countries.

Before he left he oversaw a key breakthrough that solved the perplexing problem of how to describe records within their administrative context adequately, given the constant shifts in Australian government structures and agencies. A young archivist named Peter Scott, who joined the Commonwealth Archives Office in 1963, was the architect of what became known as the 'series system', a system developed in response to the particularities of government in Australia. This system, I am told, is still in use today.

In a varied career, Maclean returned to the CAO briefly in 1974–75 and retired in 1980.

From these beginnings the National Archives has today evolved into an organisation focused on information governance for the digital economy. Like Maclean, we still speak of the 'record' – the 'authentic, reliable and usable' thing that can be relied on as the 'evidence' of activity, whether governmental or otherwise.

Records are 'transferred' to the Archives by agencies, donors, governments and so on. They are then in 'custody' for 'appraisal' and 'arrangement and description' with regard to their 'provenance' and 'original order'. The Archives 'preserves' the records in their proper context, with all necessary arrangements to ensure they are usable by all future generations. And, of course, this is done to ensure 'access', for without access there is no purpose to preservation.

These basic concepts are still under deep consideration because every one of them is being turned on its head by our digital economy. There is still plenty to rethink and re-engineer if we are to take every opportunity offered by the digital age, and meet the expectations of a diverse and growing audience which is no longer purely domestic, but global.

The business of government is increasingly conducted in cyberspace, with a fragmentation of information holdings across many digital platforms including email servers, electronic business systems, shared drives, mobile devices, electronic document and records management systems, or social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, webcasts and blogs.

The Australian Government's strategies for the National Digital Economy and eGovernment set the framework for realising the benefits of these technologies and positioning Australia as a leading digital economy by 2020. The work of the National Archives, in leading the transition to digital information management across the Commonwealth, underpins these strategies. It aims to ensure that government information is available when it is needed to enable the business of government and for reuse by the broader community.

While these are necessary transformations, and must be pursued across Government and indeed the broader business community if Australia is to be a world leader in the digital economy, this rapid change in the way we work brings with it substantial risk of losing substantive archival memory.

This fragmented information could evaporate as easily as it was created. Establishing effective digital records governance and management represents a significant business issue for many government agencies.

This becomes even more important in light of the move to a more inclusive, open government, matched by increasing levels of scrutiny on every government agency. Australians expect to have access to government and rightly expect to rely on the authenticity and integrity of those records.

There is also an expectation of easy access to all information, whether official records or not, in an age where information is available 24/7. And of course people also expect their Government to protect the nation's secrets, operate with security and to preserve the personal privacy of every citizen.  Timely and complete access to public information cannot be reckless or cavalier, but must be based on a professional and orderly program, requiring the skill of the Archivist to continue to appraise, describe and manage the official record of the Commonwealth. So Archivists are not merely information managers but they themselves grapple with essential ethical and moral issues including where we draw the line between the protection of privacy and protection of national security on one hand, transparency and open government on the other.

At the heart of everything the Archives does – and what Maclean and his colleagues did – is preserving the 'record'. In other words, the 'thing' that provides evidence of an activity. Today it exists in a virtual space. The value is in the information, the knowledge, or the experience – and not necessarily the medium that carries it.

Of course, there are physical documents and objects that must be preserved too. There are exceptional historical records that connect us with the past. So the Archives still needs to preserve those iconic collection items for collection, as you do and display so remarkably.

Getting digital preservation right is an enormous challenge; obsolete technology can render digitised documents inaccessible for future generations. Under the Archives' digital business model – a revolutionary new way of looking at how the agency delivers its outcomes from the moment a record is created through to its use and re-use – preservation must start well before the originator thinks about transferring it to the Archives. It must start the moment the record is created.

Another aspect of the digital business model is the 'transfer' or 'accessioning' of records in the Archives' custody.

In the virtual world custody is more about 'control' and less about physical location or proximity. Data belongs to an enterprise but is usually housed in a remote data centre or kept in a cloud. Unlike in Maclean's time, 'custody' here means protecting, monitoring and controlling records – holding these records in a virtual world and not a physical capacity.

More and more, an organisation's information management is conducted in the digital environment, whether it is the specific recordkeeping system or any of the electronic business systems running within an agency. The Archives' future in this environment is to embed business practices within those systems; in effect, to automate as much as possible so that the sound practices and proper information governance are a natural by-product of the business process, not a separate activity occurring several years after the creation of the record.

The Archives could have the record as soon as it is created. This will mean no constant requests to lend or transfer the records between physical locations. The record may still be in administrative use, but its preservation is assured.

The embedding of rules in software or business systems will also ensure collection of the optimum level of digital information. This will provide enormous benefits as many aspects of accessioning, arrangement and description of these archival resources are automated. Access to records will be far more efficient and effective, supported by advanced data analysis and retrieval tools.

Just over 21 years ago, the Australian Archives (as you were then known) established the Public Programs branch, tasked with delivering and implementing an ongoing program of outreach initiatives. That was in response to observations that the organisation did not engage broadly enough with the public. To cite the 1993 publication The Records Continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives first fifty years:

'In a number of areas Australian Archives has been, and continues to be, at the forefront of world archival practice … But in the provision of reference services to the public and public outreach it has been, at best, a reluctant participant.'

That was the view taken 21 years ago that is not a view that would not be taken today.

Initially, the program primarily took the form of hardcopy publications and exhibitions. The first of these was Between Two Worlds: the Commonwealth Government and the removal of Aboriginal children of part-descent in the Northern Territory – a ground-breaking exhibition that featured the official records of the Australian Government interspersed with personal stories told by those affected by the government policies. It was viewed by hundreds of thousands of Australians. To maximise community access to the records and stories, the exhibition toured to targeted regional and rural areas.

Such outreach activities, and the significant civics and citizenship education program focusing on the Constitution and founding documents of the Commonwealth of Australia, increase the Archives' profile ensuring its visibility and relevance to government and the public. They also provide to all citizens the basic rights of equitable access to the archival collection – a favourable contrast to the old fashioned notion that the Archives only provide access to 'serious' researchers and the like. In doing so, the Archives has significantly broadened its audience, meeting people's expectations to be able to access records – the virtual or actual – in a variety of ways, when they want to, regardless of where they are – be it at home, in a reading room in every capital city, on the train or at an exhibition. The Archives must therefore continue to work towards digitising its collection. That will involve building online infrastructure capability and engagement with government and non-government partners.

Government records will be intermingled with a host of other information, and the consumer will take the easiest, most convenient path to satisfy their query or research requirement. Queries won't always start with a visit to an archive's website, but will be serviced by third-party federated searches. It is important, therefore, to make our archival resources discoverable in as many portals and search results as possible.

Productive partnerships with like-minded organisations from the public and private sector provide opportunities to further enhance access for a broader audience. This will be the key to the Archives' success.

To help meet the constant challenges of preserving and providing access to archival records in the digital world, the Archives recognises the importance of maintaining strategic relationships with international bodies, government agencies and the ICT, information management, professional, corporate and tertiary education sectors to support the development of programs and services to continue to enable access to the records.

An example of a great partnership is between the National Archives of Australia and Archives New Zealand who worked together to develop a website that profiles men and women from both nations who enlisted in World War I, with links to their service records. The Discovering Anzacs websites also encourage members of the public to add tributes and enhance the profiles with family stories, letters and photographs.

The National Archives of Australia differentiates between a record's context and the medium on which it is held. It also recognises that an organisation's records exist across many data storage platforms and potentially across many legal jurisdictions.

The Archives' relationship with originating agencies will change. Business rules embedded in an agency's systems will allow the preservation of records at the time they are created, without constraining the ongoing administrative use of those records by the owning agency.

The Archives will exist alongside, and intermingled with, many other information portals that offer much of the same information that the Archives holds, sometimes in formal partnerships. Uniquely, however, the Australian Archives will be a rich content provider in a global information marketplace, ensuring the 'whole story' is remembered and can be retold.

And, of course, access will be online and everywhere, improved by rich new data visualisation techniques and expanded descriptive contributions from an engaged population. That is the vision of the future.

There are some things will not change. In a world full of information sources, the National Archives of Australia will be consulted for the authentic, complete record that can truly be regarded and relied upon as evidence. In the words of Jenkinson, so eagerly read by the 24 year old Ian Maclean in his corner of Parliament House 70 years ago, it is the archivist's task to safeguard the impartiality and authenticity of the records for which they are responsible. This 'true record' preserves the cultural heritage of the nation, supports the rights and entitlements of our citizens, and provides transparency and accountability of government to all.

It is important work, it is a noble profession. I commend all of you for embarking upon this profession. It's been a privilege to share this important anniversary with you this morning, thank you.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019