Reflections on ARA Conference 2016

In virtually every talk in every stream, there was something pioneering.The high attendance levels in the dedicated digital preservation streamalso showed the appetite for learning, sharing and ‘getting on with’this hugely challenging task facing the profession.

Reflections on ARA Conference 2016: Global Futures


Any observant historian travelling between the two floors of the Wembley Hilton that served us so well at Conference this year will have seen a misquote of Charles Darwin on the wallpaper outside the lifts on the fourth floor (as well as a common misspelling of Sir Thomas More’s name). Who ever said that record-keepers were pedantic sticklers for detail? Here’s what the Darwin quote should have said:

“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”

At times in the past few years, many in the profession may have felt a bit like an endangered species. Budget cuts (in the public sector), the struggle to justify records management and archives (in a private sector struggling through austerity), plus the constant drive to increase footfall and reach new audiences – all while trying to do the ‘day job.’

It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, that virtually no-one at this year’s conference was letting the budgets, as it were, get them down. ‘Change’ and innovation seem firmly entrenched in the DNA of sector. We heard about UK public sector records managers becoming (in effect) logisticians and business management consultants; dance and theatre archivists experimenting in expressive interpretation and digitisation; and chemical spectrometry of the inks of Anglo-Saxon English manuscripts. In virtually every talk in every stream, there was something pioneering. The high attendance levels in the dedicated digital preservation stream also showed the appetite for learning, sharing and ‘getting on with’ this hugely challenging task facing the profession. As for conservators, no strangers to innovation, we saw cutting-edge new hydration polymers, new wax compounds and sewing threads.

The powerful first-morning keynote from Colin Prescod exhorted record-keepers to think of ourselves as ‘agents’ of change, that we have a duty to think beyond being custodians or accumulators and encouraging a sense of ‘belonging’. Our decisions about what material to keep, share, promote or prioritise can be instrumental in helping researchers challenge or refute the ‘dominant narratives’ that shape (or distort) societies. We can’t avoid making a decision of some sort: if we are passive, we risk becoming agents of the dominant narrative by default. As the world becomes more global and integrated, and as (a community) we reach information overload, our individual decisions as professionals become more important. Colin’s message was a timely reminder that those communities marginalised by the dominant narrative sometimes know best the power of our records - and the importance of what we choose to conserve and preserve – better than we so-called professionals.

Tina Staples of HSBC reminded us that the future is now, today, not something distant. Our global medium is now digital: digital preservation is not just about managing today, but preserving today’s archive for tomorrow. We have already allowed gaps to emerge. Adapting requires financial investment, of course. But the biggest challenge is the leadership to think big and be willing to drive and shape change, and experiment: as a profession, we are still struggling to take the leadership role and keep up with the pace of change, from training new professionals entering the market and changing how we think and work.

Anthea Case of Arcadia showed us – in a sense – that we may be comparatively lucky in the challenges we face. There are archives and records everywhere at risk of obliteration. The Arcadia-funded (British Library-managed) Endangered Archives Programme is supporting over 300 different international projects to record (digitally) archives in a massive range of media – from rock formations, to horn, and temple murals to copper plate – plus paper, photo and digital items from zones of war and unrest. These projects are about ‘investing in memory,’ and the sheer diversity of the challenges had forced flexibility and innovation on the professional conservators and archivists involved. There is no textbook and no easy answers: ‘don’t be afraid to experiment,’ said Anthea. ‘There is no alternative.’

There was a common thread through the Conference about the need for experimentation and learning-by-doing. Many speakers and participants referred to the initial fear of failure, but the later realisation that taking ownership of problems had been personally empowering and career defining. Some faced technical challenges: the journey of documents from the conservation bench to Twitter in marking the centenary of the Easter Rising in Ireland. Others had to tackle management and best practiceissues, such as cold storage of film, management of volunteers, cross-disciplinary and collaborative practice, project management and many more. All this shows how record-keepers are increasingly – as one speaker commented – defined by their ‘soft skills’ rather than traditional academic or professional training. The same speaker also mentioned artificial intelligence – surely a future conference theme – the possibility one day of being able to archive one’s own thoughts.

Similarly, the‘Global’ theme appeared in most sessions. We heard about Iranian master illuminators alongside Western European bookbinding. Speakers traced the origins of inks used in Dark Ages Britain and Ireland to Afghanistan and Egypt. Finally, we explored ‘new’ elements in the global – those who don’t ‘belong’, ie left out of the dominant narratives that Colin Prescod referenced in his keynote. For example, the historical and contemporary treatment of those suffering mental health issues and the disabled, from institutional care in Scotland to the ethics of consent, refugees, and the LGBTQ community.

It seemed to me that our conclusion to three days of intensive debate was somewhat counter-intuitive. While we live in an undoubtedly globalising world, interest in the ‘local’ (and tracing meaningfulglobal links) is growing just as quickly. As professionals, our challenges are too complicated and diverse for our traditional methods, training and structures to handle. Thinking outside the box has to become standard: decisions are increasingly being pushed down management chains to local level, giving individual services and professionals the opportunity to shape their own future. As one speaker said, referring back to Darwin is: ‘share your services or be “shared” yourself.’

At the same time, members shouldn’t feel alone or overwhelmed. As ARA, we can help each other adjust to this changing environment: emotional resilience, advocacy support, sharing best practice and mentoring, etc. This is, after all, your association, so as you face challenges, please also challenge us to find new ways of supporting you and keeping Conference relevant.