Reflections and summing up: ARA Conference 2015: Archivists, record-keepers and conservators on the front-line



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It has been an outstanding conference in Dublin this year. A key reason has been the excellence of the organisation, for which special thanks go to Andrew Nicoll and his committee, our colleagues in the ARA Ireland region, Joan Smith and her unflappable staff at Sounds Commercial and our Hilton Doubletree hosts. Special thanks are also due to all our sponsors, speakers, volunteers and all exhibitors in the information marketplace.

A second reason has been the range and quality of the papers and debate. Many of our speakers are evidently on the front line of research, management and support in major inquiries of public and political significance. Some, like our main speaker James King, has found his archive at the centre of government actions and legal wrangling that straddle continents. Other archivists and record-keepers explained how they found themselves in the front line of major legal, social justice issues; some urged us – as a community –  to take more of a lead in shaping the debate and role that accurate record-keeping and archives play in access to justice, open government, effective accountability and protection of individual rights. The expertise of our community is more needed than ever in righting past wrongs, and it is clear that these roles cannot be filled by colleagues that lack specialist understanding of good documentary management.

Our conservation colleagues are also very much on the front line. Filth, mould and grime were headline themes the conference in their own right: the use of cutting-edge techniques to extract viable DNA from cleaning historic parchments, clean and preserve maps and session rolls of all sizes, preserve a Scottish referendum collection of condoms, tackle red rot and restore a mediaeval psalter in a near-original state. Not only that: a paper on the cutting-edge use of x-rays to examine parchment shows that conservators are also increasingly looking to technologies and techniques to ply their trade.

This conference was our first digital preservation stream – two days of discrete presentations from colleagues in China, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere plus debate on the legal, ethical and practical challenges we all face going forward. There were papers from colleagues confronting the daunting task of large-scale digisation through simple learning-by-doing, from others navigating the ethics of ‘born-digital’ donations alongside the wider ethics and equity of collecting, and from others who have had to negotiate around restrictive government practices or simply communicate with governments who struggle to get their basic records and archives definitions right.

The exchanges at conference also highlighted how colleagues in conservation face many of the same challenges when it comes to digital preservation as those responsible for archives and records, suggesting that many of the traditional boundaries between our communities are breaking down in the digital age. More than ever, arguably, we need to be sharing across professional boundaries and geographical frontiers and driving the debate on copyright and access, and the ethical and legal mazes that affect us all. In this context, it was a pleasure to see so many colleagues from overseas helping shape, inform and sharpen our perspectives in these islands. Long may that continue.

Finally, a major question going forward is how we adjust – collectively and severally – to the challenges of severe funding cuts and threats to services. An encouraging part of the conference was innovation: how to do things better on ever-tighter budgets. But another part is how we must grasp the nettle ourselves and showcase and market to a wider community the value and importance of what we do. Joan Burton, TD (Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister), our keynote speaker, evidently ‘gets it.’ Others in local, regional and national politics still do not. All these issues, will no doubt remain hot topics when we reconvene in London next year. Hope to see you all there, and do encourage more colleagues to join us!

Jon Elliott, ARA Head of Public Affairs