'Getting it done' is just the beginning

A paper presented by Director-General David Fricker at the Australasian Sound Recordings Association at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra on 31st August 2016.

I congratulate ASRA for convening its 2016 annual conference with the theme: 'Crunch Time – Getting it Done'.  This is a pretty good description of a mood prevalent among us at the moment, and especially so when we ponder the future of our audio archives which are now under serious threat through technical obsolescence.  As my contribution to the discussion, I'll share my views on how the National Archives of Australia is feeling the crunch and what 'getting it done' might actually mean for the precious audio records in our collection.  To explain my position I'll start by examining what I consider to be the fundamental reason that Archives exist and the distinct role they play alongside the complementary institutions of libraries, galleries and museums. I'll then discuss the nature of our audio and audio visual collection, and the choices I am making to preserve and keep accessible the collection, hopefully survivinh the 'crunch'.

I often collectively describe that group of institutions comprising libraries, archives and museums as memory institutions; however I actually believe that only Archives are, in the purest sense, truly dedicated to the preservation of memory.  I realise that this view, coming from the Director-General of the National Archives, may sound a little precious and perhaps even elitist; but it is neither.  I offer this view only to distinguish Archives from the other institution types to ensure that we focus on and perform our unique role for the benefit of the communities we serve.  Let's think about what memory is, and how it is used.   When we refer to our personal memory we are referring to our capacity to access and recall our first hand experiences of the past.  By recalling our memories we're able to reach back into the past, to re-observe it and formulate a new understanding of what actually occurred.  Based on that we can then form an opinion that is not primarily based on someone else's opinion or interpretation but rather our own unobstructed view of the past.

And this is the unique role of the Archives.  The primary purpose is not to keep the secondary opinions, interpretations or artefacts of the past but instead to keep as far as is possible the raw memory; the primary sources. Sometimes the primary sources have never been referenced since the day they were created and are waiting to be discovered for the first time.  This unique aspect of Archives defines its principal role: to carry humanity's memory from one generation to the next.  Archives do not profess to hold the accumulated knowledge or history or even great achievements of humanity – this role is performed much more effectively and deliberately by libraries, museums and galleries.  Each type of these institutions is distinct and complementary; and of course all are essential to a civilised society.   

Archives perform this role by holding the evidence of the past – the records of the activities, decisions and the events.  This shapes the distinct way in which Archives build collections; which again is fundamentally different to libraries, museums and galleries. A library or museum may identify a gap in its holdings on a particular topic or theme in which case it may acquire the best manuscripts, publications or artefacts as exemplars or representatives of that particular theme. These institutions may accession chosen items, deaccession unwanted or inferior items, curate, buy and sell and in the process strengthen their integrity and value as an institution.

Archival appraisal and selection of records is a different proposition.  It is less like filling a gap, or completing a set, or even looking for the best of something, and much more akin to sweeping up evidence in a crime scene.  The archivist attempts to find everything of relevance to a particular thing, even though the full significance of the thing may not yet be understood.  Collecting evidence in a crime scene requires expertise, judgement and acute observation, however it also requires objectivity and neutrality.  Collecting evidence is the first step on a long process with an uncertain outcome.  An item of evidence may in the end be of vital importance, it may be trivial, it may be nothing more than a connection between two or more other items.  Evidence is collected to serve the future; it is for the court to judge it and determine if it is 'proof' of any criminality or indeed if it is exculpatory.  Evidentiary value is only maintained if it is collected, preserved and handled in the right way and to the highest standards.  It is not permissible for any party to see a gap in the evidence collected and fill that gap by acquiring a similar piece from a completely different source.  This metaphor has some limits however it does help non-archivists understand why and how we collect within Archives.  Not collecting any one thing for its own attributes, but collecting a series of things as evidence and memory of something as yet unseen.

Of course, every Archival institution enjoys pulling out our more spectacular items, mounting exhibitions to showcase our collections or to tell a particular narrative of our history, but we will only ever exhibit a tiny fraction of the material we hold, and in fact most of it will never be shown. The true value of an archival collection does not come from any single document; it comes from the aggregation of documents and the relationships between them; and often those relationships do not become clear for a very long time.

Archives, Museums and Libraries are important, distinct and complementary institutions essential to any civilised society.  In the real world of course we often share or overlap functions – Archives may collect one-off items of particular historic value, libraries and museums will hold manuscripts and personal papers, and there are many other examples.   It's that closeness of the relationship between the different types of collecting institutions coupled with the distinction in our collecting philosophies that gives us that tension around what NFSA CEO Michael Loebenstein has referred to as a heightened "curatorial passion"; when simple questions around preservation of documentary heritage can become highly animated, inconclusive and, too often, deadlocked.  This is particularly the case for audio and audio-visual material.  We constantly revisit the core questions: What exactly are we preserving?  Evidence of what? And while we claim that as archivists we are neutral and objective in the collection and description of records as evidence, it is simply impossible to keep everything, so what values and biases are we the archivists imposing on our collections?

Crunch time for audio archives means deciding what to keep and therefore what to leave behind; complicated by the fact that, unlike text, audio records have a special relationship with their carriers.  The material that they have been recorded on is often accorded special value, blurring the line between content and carrier when we look for the archival value in an audio or audiovisual record.

As Director-General of the National Archives of Australia I am not in the storage business. Indeed I'm not even in the preservation business, I am in the access business, and as I've just said I am in the remembering business. Of course the Archives is heavily engaged in archival storage and preservation, but the purpose for it all is access.  Everything we do is for the purpose of faithfully reproducing Australia's memories in a way that makes them accessible now and into the future.

And why do we preserve memory? As individuals, we are constantly remembering things.  This is not because we wish to return to the past, usually we're using our memory in order to work in the present and plan for the future.

So it is with Archives.  We don't try to take people back to the past. We take the past into the future.

And, as sound archivists are well aware, taking sound archives into the future brings with it its own unique set of challenges.

It's not like taking paper documents into the future.  The memory registered in a page of text is relatively easy to preserve and reproduce.  Looking upon a page of text today, within a series of related records, is very close to the original experience of reading the text the instant after it was first created.  The prospect is very different when you're trying to remember sound, when you seek the original audio record.  After all, as far as the listener is concerned, sound is vibration of the eardrum. Everything else involved in the process is incidental. 

A roll of tape is not a sound.  A pressed platter of vinyl is not a sound.  These are the intermediary technologies that we utilise to get that sound into the ear, to start the vibrations in the ear of the listener. It's not something we can see, it's not something we can touch, it's not something we can hold in our hands.  Every one of the archivist's interventions for access or preservation of sound involves intermediary technology. We never actually reach out and touch and hold that original record in the same way as we might do for paper. Importantly, every one of our interventions disturbs the record in some way because some aspect of the intermediary technology will have changed over time. Whether it's the carriers, formats, codecs, amplifiers, headphones, even the space the listener is sitting in - every time the sound is accessed by a human ear it will be different, a constantly changing approximation of the original sound. And so this is our conundrum. Preserve the carrier or just the sound?  If we lose the carrier do we lose the original?  If we keep the carrier do we lose the possibility of access?  Accepting that this really is crunch time could be quite crippling, but at another level it can be quite liberating.  It can be the burning platform that motivates us to make some professional choices about what is to be kept and get on with it. Start 'getting it done'.

At the National Archives 'getting it done' means preserving enough Commonwealth records to make sure that the Commonwealth Government of Australia is accountable to its people. We don't start from a desire to collect examples of old technology. We want useful, reliable and accessible evidence of what the government did in the name of the people that elected it.  And we've got a lot of it!  Including a great volume of at risk audio and audiovisual material.

We have 900,000 physical and digital audio-visual items in the Archives collection. That's about 470,000 hours of content; the largest audiovisual collection of any Archive in Australia. 62% is audio, with about 303,000 hours of agency supplied and Archives copied content. The physical items that go into this collection comprise a range of current technology, near obsolete technology and obsolete formats. We have 2-inch tape, 1-inch, half-inch, quarter-inch, we have compact, we have mini and micro cassettes, 8-track, we have some DA-88, DATs, mini discs, compact discs. We have gramophone discs and magnetic and optical sound film. We have digital media on obsolete carriers. 

The bulk of it, about 50%, is on magnetic tape, followed by film and sound discs at about 25% each. In terms of digital audio, we hold around 144,000 hours, mostly in WAV and MP3 formats. We've got 75 terabytes of digital audio in our digital audio archive at the moment, and 939 terabytes of the digital moving image collection which is already in digital format in our digital archives. It's fair to say that the National Archives is well into a digital preservation process, but if you look at the volume of records in obsolete or near obsolete formats it is clear that we have a long way to go, at a short time to get there. We are indeed facing crunch time.

The Archives is on board with NFSA as an active participant in the Deadline 2025 campaign and right now we are looking hard at what we can do within our available budget to make some progress towards that agenda.  I'm pleased to report that we have so far digitised about 32,000 hours of unique content, but there's still about 107,000 hours of unique audio content which is at risk.

This means that we risk losing the memory of about 60 years of radio, and the beginning of television in Australia.  Iconic broadcasts, such as 'Live at the Wireless', 'The Listening Room', 'The World Today', 'Grandstand', 'Blue Hills' and 'Mornings with Margaret Throsby'.  These archives are not kept as moments of nostalgia, nor the desire to recreate the 1950s family moments gathered in our dressing gowns around the wireless.  The aggregation of this material, preserved in order and context is vitally important information about Australia's journey over the last 60 years.  And there is unpublished material, never broadcast, waiting to be discovered.  We have scientific data films and other material produced by a range of government agencies with the potential to advance our understanding of 21st century issues such as climate change, bio-diversity, national security, public health and indigenous culture. We have censored material, and covert surveillance product.  Information previously withheld from the public that can now be accessed and studied.

And of course in partnership with the NFSA we have the master components from the Commonwealth Film Unit Australia and Screen Australia collection.

So our audio holdings represent an essential, irreplaceable and indispensable part of the nation's archives.  They are in themselves no more or less important than the other holdings of the Archives, however their vulnerability means that their preservation is in many ways a far more urgent issue than it is for paper. As I've often said, paper is patient. Paper will wait for thousands of years sitting in a box and it'll be there exactly where we left it in that dark room when we get back to it. Audio, audio-visual and magnetic media will not wait.    

And with that I return to the issue du jour – preservation of audio archives and 'Getting it Done'.  And my particular theme of ''Getting it Done' is just the beginning'.

As I said at the outset the role of the Archives is to pass memory from one generation to the next. In the case of our sound archives our role is to faithfully reproduce the sounds in our collection, and to maintain that capability forever into the future.  Archival preservation means preserving the accessibility of a record - it is not enough just to stabilise the carrier and to keep it frozen. What we are preserving is the accessibility, the usefulness, the utility of that sound. To faithfully reproduce it to the extent that it maintains its evidentiary value and, as a minimum, retains the attributes that made it important enough to keep in the first place. The reason I'm choosing these words is because I want to get to that conversation about carrier or content, and the decisions we make to leave one carrier behind as we take the memory forward on a new more dependable carrier, one which can be relied upon to deliver access in the future.

Within the Archives of course we constantly agonise over these decisions. Can we really separate the carrier from the content? Isn't it important that future generations understand what tape looks like, how it feels to put a reel on a player, to wrap the leader around that spool, to drop a stylus onto vinyl and hear that satisfying crackle?  And every transfer onto a new carrier introduces some level of unrecoverable loss. How do we reconcile this with our archival principles that every intervention should be reversible, and nothing should alter the record; and our archival instinct to wrap a protective layer around an intact, inviolate original? 

Archives and archivists generally want to be neutral players in the collection and preservation of records; as I said earlier we are collecting evidence for investigations that may not take place for many years and with a purpose that we cannot foresee. But in the real world, archivists never were and never can be completely neutral. Archivists have always exercised very subjective and selective function over what gets kept, how they're preserved and how they are made accessible.  Archival institutions have always been active players in what humanity can remember about its past.  This is a weighty responsibility and defines us as professional archivists with a professional code of ethics.  But this is the job of the Archivist, preserving records not for the past, but taking every action necessary to ensure the records are accessible in the future – and further to do this in a way that encourages use, makes it rewarding and achieves that connection of society with its collective memory. 

And now that crunch time has arrived the only way ahead, in my view, is to leave the obsolete carrier behind.  To let the records shuffle off their mortal coil and enjoy the immortality of archives.

My view is that the carrier is not the original record, and does not form part of the memory we have selected for preservation.  In fact in most cases the originator of the sound had no interaction with and limited understanding of the technology being used to capture the sound.  Keeping the carrier for these records is not enhancing the evidentiary value of the sounds in our archives and the obsolete nature of the carriers will, for the ordinary person impede rather than enable access to the memory contained in the audio itself.  Now, at the risk of being condemned as a complete and irredeemable heretic I immediately state for the record that there are some audio records within our collection that have special value because of the carrier, and would lose substantial value if content and carrier were separated.  These will be preserved! - but they represent a tiny proportion of the 900,000 audiovisual items we hold.

I should also make it clear that I love 20th century audio technology, as does every sound archivist I have ever met.  I'm a baby boomer, so I love putting a stylus into a vinyl groove and reliving my memories of Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa and everything else that we use to listen to while we pretended to study.  That's why we need institutions with programmes and policies that expertly collect and curate the best exemplars of those generations of technology and maintain a capability to recreate an experience their use.  But, apart from a very few exceptions, I do not regard this as the function of the National Archives.  Right now, the Archives is faced with the task of carrying 470,000 hours of audiovisual content into the future: for access in the future, using the technology of the future.  So 'Getting it Done' for me means digitisation.

But, as I say, 'Getting it Done' is just the beginning.  Digitisation, like most forms of preservation, is not an end point.  While digitisation offers today's solution to obsolescence in our archives the irony is that digital technology is probably the least stable and most vulnerable technology of all the technologies that have gone before. While those old technologies such as vinyl and magnetic tape served us well for several decades, digital is evolving more rapidly, with new storage technology, codecs and standards entering the professional and consumer markets.  Any digitisation we undertake today is but a single step on a never ending trek; just getting us temporarily onto a common platform with a set of tools that we can now use to carry that memory ahead.

Of course digital is not forever. It is the wonder of the late 20th and early 21st century but 100 years from now digital will be obsolete as well. Maybe it will be quantum technology or whatever comes next but I'm sure a century from now people will laugh at the way we so passionately reduced everything to a one or a zero.

It may seem a contradiction when I simultaneously say that "digital is a vulnerable storage medium" and "digital is the future of Archives".  But I hope it makes sense when I repeat that Archives is not a storage business, it is an access business.  And when it comes to access, digital is the only future I can see for our audio archives.

I'd like now to change tack slightly and talk about some other developments occurring internationally to preserve digital documentary heritage. 

I am actively engaged with the International Council on Archives and in the UNESCO Memory of the World programme, currently serving as a Deputy Chair of the Memory of the World International Advisory Committee.  Memory of the World has over the last five years or so been running the PERSIST project, which recognises UNESCO's concern that the world's cultural heritage today is being created largely in digital format and yet so much of it is at risk due to the vulnerability of digital content.  Through PERSIST, UNESCO is acting now to meet this challenge of the digital age to ensure that future generations do not look back at this era as the 'digital dark age' but instead continue to draw upon the publications, memory and evidence of our times to build a future that is enlightened by the ideas and discoveries of the past.

At a broad level, PERSIST will deliver a programme comprising:

  • A single point to gather, at an international level, the current and emerging requirements of Archives, Libraries and other memory institutions in the field of digital preservation;
  • Development and promulgation of best practice tools and resources for the collection, preservation and accessibility of digital documentary heritage;
  • Strategic direction for the research and development community, ensuring that the actual requirements of memory institutions are driving the development of digital preservation tools and services;
  • A mechanism to evaluate and accredit those tools and services that could be relied upon; and
  • Policy and best practices related to a more sustainable lifecycle management of digital technologies.

An important component of the PERSIST programme will be a set of services that will allow memory institutions to continue to interact with digital material in formats that have become obsolete and are no longer supported.  The implementation of this service is envisaged to include an on-line service, providing virtual machines that can emulate the behaviour of obsolete computers and operating systems and execute commercial software products which have long left the market and would otherwise be out of the reach of memory institutions.  Clearly, these services will not viable without the participation of the ICT industry, so PERSIST will be looking for partners from the tech sector, as well as memory institutions and Governments.

The ICA and IFLA are already heavily involved in this initiative and there has been strong interest and in principle support from tech sector companies including Microsoft and Google.  I expect to see more engagement from the ICT industry; as more technology firms seize the opportunity to step up and say "we are responsible, through our products, for the creation of humanity's digital cultural heritage, and we want to show that we are doing our bit to make sure that the cultural heritage created with our software will remain accessible for the benefit of future generations – even beyond the life of our company".

So watch this space, and hopefully we will see PERSIST taking some practical shape in the not too distant future.

Finally, a few thoughts on our capacity as a profession to work through this crunch time and 'get it done'. 

I observe that it's quite fashionable for public servants to say that today is the most "complex" period of human history. That we face challenges today the likes of which have never been faced before, implying that our predecessors had it easier than us. I don't think that this is the case.  Within our own profession, archivists have always had to deal with complexity – and in the case of audio archivists, dealing with the intangible phenomenon that is sound, it has never been anything other than a complex time.  Today we are confronted with the complexities of the fast paced digital environment, but when did audio-technology ever really stand still for any period of time? All of the formats I now refer to as obsolete were at some point state of the art, leading edge technology requiring audio archivists to constantly explore, experiment and perfect new techniques and methods.   With this tradition behind us, I don't think we should be afraid of diving into this next digital chapter of our professional history because it's nothing that compares with the challenges that have been faced by our forebears.  In that spirit, I think we should confidently embrace the future and, as I said before, remember that we are not about anchoring the world in the past as archivists. We are always about the future. We are serving customers that haven't been born yet. We are always carrying memory - doing the things we must do, making the changes we must make, the decisive interventions that we judge are necessary to serve the needs of the future.  We are at a unique moment now – the "digital moment" and the crunch time is upon us.  Just as our predecessors have done, it's time for us to pass the point of no return and make decisions - archival decisions - that will define the future's memory of the past.

Thanks to organisations like ASRA, thanks to our professional community, I'm confident that we have the intellectual capacity, the creativity and the ideas to perform the task.  If we act now and get it done, the future will thank us for it.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019