Archives in the Future

Posted on September 2, 2013
What should the ideal archives look like in the future? As a user of archives I often ask myself this question. Here is my wish list:

Archives of the future should by all means be more advanced than those of the past and certainly more efficient than those of the present. Archives as a collection of memory and history should not be taken for granted and should be preserved bearing in mind that they serve as a gateway into the past.

Accessing the archives is always a mission, and where they are not well kept and managed only makes the exercise of using them tedious and cumbersome. The archives of the future should be digitized on a system that should ensure that all archival material in the form of documents, photographs and any other correspondence is well kept and cannot be taken out of the archival system easily.

Some families of historical figures have asked the archives of universities to keep the families' documents in their care and also make them accessible to researchers. However, when descendants of these figures ask to have access to their family papers they are asked to pay to use or view the documents. In other instances the archive is carelessly managed and family papers have been removed by private persons for their own personal benefit. The archive I would build would preserve and manage all of its records in a way that avoids such problems.

Like all archives are, my archive would be like a conveyor belt that has information constantly coming in requiring that it be processed and packaged in a standardised manner and stored away so that it may be retrieved when it is needed. It is always important for organizations to mechanize operations to improve them. The archive is not an exception to the process. The archive should be improved to become a fast and efficient system when it comes to accessing records, and allowing users to request the retrieval of documentation so that when the documents have been located a notification can be sent to the user to confirm that the records are ready and available.

Furthermore, the archive should not be regarded as a repository for bits of information that seem irrelevant or that we hope to be important one day. An efficient appraisal system to determine what is important to keep and what to discard is critical. Such a system needs to be staffed by people who are well informed and always curious about developments in research to be able to determine the direction in which knowledge is going and what information it needs.

The archive is a component of our social environment but also of the built environment. As such archives buildings should be constructed in a manner that is not congested and cluttered, but be more of an open serene environment with work spaces for the use of the archival material within a controlled environment. The archive should not be located far away from people. It should form an integral part of the society and should not be disengaged from people.

To inculcate the importance of archives, they should be incorporated into the education system from an early point. A visit to the archives should be coupled with visits to the museum that students do, and the student should be given a chance to access an archival record and learn what archives are and how they work from early on.

Goa Gaberone is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Johannesburg.