ARA member reports from ICA-SUV 2013

Ruth Frendo, ARA member and Archivist,  Globe Education, attended theICA-SUV 2013 Conference. She shares her thoughts

Two weeks ago I attended my first international gathering of archivists – the ICA-SUV (Section on University and Research Institution Archives) 2013 annual conference. As an isolated worker in an undervalued profession, I was hoping to reignite my sense of purpose by establish contact with fellow archivists. They, I reasoned, would at best have solutions to some of the problems I face. And at the very least they would reassure me that my concerns, and all the procedures and precautions I insist upon, aren’t simply a manifestation of extreme social maladjustment. As it turned out, the conference provided me with far, far more. And the fact that the conference took place in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, Barbados, was only the first (though by no means the least!) of its benefits.

The theme of the conference was The New Age Archivist: Managing Archives in a Digital World . In other words, it was an opportunity to explore how the role of the archivist is changing in a world where the creation, communication and preservation of information are transforming before our eyes. It’s something that has concerned me since making the shift from learning the theory of archives to actually working in the real world. And it’s not just the usual shift from theory to practice, where you find that what sounds not just reasonable, but obvious, on paper, turns into a series of logistical contortions within the confines of your average over-crowded, under-staffed archive office. It’s the fact that in a world where we’re continually running to catch up with the latest trends in communication, all the old certainties of what counted as important, lasting or reliable can no longer be taken for granted.

The conference was a truly international affair, with delegates hailing from all over the world. The topics covered and approaches discussed were as varied as the research institutions that presented them. One recurring subject was cloud storage, the benefits it offers and the problems it pose. Media myth-makers would have us believe that the continual annual growth in available digital data is snowballing into an information avalanche of apocalyptic proportions. These media myth-makers underestimate the gravity of the situation. Coming together as a profession and working with technology experts to ensure that our needs are addressed in this emerging new world is crucial. As is re-assessing our traditional expectations and practice of appraisal and description. Nor were the positive aspects of technology development ignored. Some of the most affecting and inspiring presentations I attended illustrated how new technologies enable archives in Brazil and Martinique to reach new audiences, and to re-enfranchise people in their own history.

What struck me most about the conference was its friendliness. Representing a very small archive service, in a conference attended by people responsible for internationally renowned intercollegiate projects or managing the collections of major universities, could have been a daunting experience. Instead, I found most people extremely supportive and encouraging, and learnt two important lessons. One was that I am by no means alone in continually struggling for funds, and in finding that many of the procedures I learnt at archival school, while always the ideal, are not always practical with the limited resources at my disposal. Outside of large institutions, archivists improvise – and to do so successfully, it’s invaluable to learn how others approach the problems we share. The other is that, regardless of budget or scale of operation, the essential problems of caring for digital data are common to all of us. If only for that reason, it’s crucial that we as a profession play an active role in highlighting these problems, and developing solutions. Collaboration offers the best opportunity to do this, and in view of the scale of these issues, international collaboration is what’s called for.

And one final benefit of attending conferences: listening to people talk about their practices and problems, and trying in return to explain what you do, is an invaluable way to re-awaken your awareness of issues which have become buried beneath routine, and to re-ignite your love of the job.

More information about the conference can be found on the ICA-SUV website and at