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Documents and records: questions of values vs application of laws

Posted on March 26, 2012
A cause for concern has arisen related to archives conservation management in the Western Cape. The Deeds Office and Surveyor-General's Office in Cape Town are undergoing a digitisation programme (the Registrar is authorised by the Registries Act to preserve copies of documents for record purposes instead of the originals). This is commendable and necessary as these thousands of pieces of paper are unique, vulnerable, irreplaceable documents related to cadastral developments and property ownership since the 1650s - title deeds and transfers, survey diagrams and township plans, mortgages, territorial and water disputes, land use and land management, privatisation of public land, slave transactions, etc. etc.

The process is being carried out by a reputable commercial company, but, disturbingly, without experience in conservation management or 'archival standards' treatment. The project and its components are vague. It is clear that the DO has storage space problems coupled with deterioration of the documents as a result of public access and handling. It is unclear who made these decisions and what stakeholders, if any, were consulted in the planning process. No prior discussion with Western Cape Archives took place before these decisions were made, which is curious. Apparently the current long-term plan is to keep the documents in storage on their (private) site in Paarden Eiland. Once scanned, the documents will be placed in vacuum-sealed plastic bags and kept in temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms.

Several immediate questions arise. How should irreplaceable records/documents be digitised and the originals stored? Who and what is affected? How can a private company be responsible for holding the public and national record, when the National Archives Act makes provision for the keeping of government records, and the State has the space, means, skill and capacity to do so? What does it further cost the taxpayer? Who would conduct the annual archival audit? Who is responsible for any loss or damage? How long is the contract (5, 50, 100 years?), and then what happens? What contingency plans are there if the company or the storage facility shuts down?

Apart from the lack of responsibility for co-ordinated planning and danger of inadvertent damage or loss, there are some more general questions and concerns. The following notes are based on my understanding of possible underlying causes. We need to fully understand and resolve the situation, as many other national and local heritage resources may be at similar risk.

Records, documents and archives

Records management is a different mindset to archives management, and both of these are worldviews away from research resources management. There is a difference between a record and a document. Records are evidence of transactions, activities, legal obligations, policies, etc. Documents are prepared for personal rather than official reasons. Many documents are ephemeral or of very short-term value and, according to records management protocols, they should not end up in a records management system. Thus, only some papers need to be kept and these become official records.

All records start off as documents, but not all documents become preserved as records. However, the older 'records' stored in the Deeds Office and Surveyor-General's Office are filed together with all sorts of 'documents' that today would be unlikely to be retained due to sheer volume of transactions. As we know, these 'ephemeral' documents are a gold mine for historians and researchers, and, more importantly, can provide vital sources of evidence, for example in land claims investigations. The official record is the end result of a process, but by careful scrutiny of associated documents and maps and ephemera, gaps and contradictions in the ownership and occupational history of a property can sometimes become clear and circumstantial or indirect evidence is found to substantiate claims.

Thus, the value and usage of records by those who seek verification of an official event or action is very different to those who research them for clues to human behaviour or historical processes, e.g. a conveyancer's clerk vs a land claims researcher. The former can download schematic redrawn versions of title deeds online and then go to the originals to simply follow the trail of ownership. What, where, when, what conditions? The latter inspects in detail the entire corpus of interrelated and interfiled document(s) with the understanding that the context(s) in which they are made, amended, preserved and queried is mutable and must be interrogated and interpreted. What, where, when, who, how and why?

The preservation of, and access to, original material is another important issue. For records verification, digital images of certain documents will probably suffice. For investigative research, they won't, even if they are comprehensively photographed individually and in original relation to each other. It is impractical to trace linkages and cross reference from one document to another without having all the volumes immediately to hand. Ordering them from deep storage one-by-one (which is envisaged to take 3 days each time) is inconceivable. For example, the only way to trace and prove land ownership and Group Areas removal is by intensive research across all of these documents, which will no longer be possible.

Legislation and paper-based heritage

There are at least three Acts related to old pieces of paper: the National Archives Act, the Deeds Registry Act and the National Heritage Resources Act.

Surprisingly, the Archives are not directly responsible for the standard of treatment of management of old records of certain government sections ('offices of record / registry') which in Cape Town include Parliament, the Deeds Office and Surveyor-General's Office, as their holdings are not 'public records' as defined in the National Archives Act. Furthermore, the NAA is subservient to the Deeds Registry Act. The National Heritage Resources Act does not apply either. In the subsection describing categories of paper-based 'heritage objects' such as books, records, documents, photographs, etc., it states that 'public records' (as defined in terms of the NAA) are specifically excluded from the national estate.

An office of record (or registry) ensures that the authenticity and legality of the contents of documents cannot be questioned, and the DO Registrar is responsible for 'preserving' relevant records (but not for 'conserving'?). Despite the National Archives' understanding that 'all records in paper format dated before 1910 are archival in nature”, the DO Registrar has no legal directive towards how to treat old documents in heritage conservation terms.

Another problem is that, normal correspondence ('ephemera') created or received by the DO could revert to the Archives, and since some of the records in question are regarded as being of a regional government department, they would be transferred to the Western Cape Provincial Archives Repository. In the same way, records relating to places now in the Eastern Cape have been relocated there. But the earlier Cape records are of national significance since they relate to South Africa before Union in 1910 and provincialisation. There is an added danger that documents relating to the same property or issue may become separated from each other and their explanatory context. (This has already happened when oversized maps and plans were removed from letter files without cross-referencing.)

Who's responsible?

There are apparently some investigations taking place. We clearly must encourage the Archives and Registries to communicate and collaborate and, hopefully, to revise their regulations and implement agreed standards of conservation treatment, research access and long-term storage. We definitely need to educate both sectors as to the peculiar and changing aims and methods of researchers in order to compel them to preserve, conserve and maintain as much as possible of our paper-based heritage resources into the future (for research, as artefacts, as heritage resources).

What else can or should we do?

Dr Antonia Malan is a research associate in the Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town and is the convenor of the Historical Archaeology Research Group