Let Them Preserve Cake: Government’s Dismissive Message to Australian Archivists

Australia’s National Archives is 1,400 years behind schedule if it is to preserve even its current holdings. Its users are not happy.

More than 150 distinguished Australian writers, academics, and prominent cultural figures have addressed an open letter to the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, urging his government “to stop the neglect of the National Archives and protect the nation’s history.”

The letter, whose signers from varied political viewpoints include two Nobel laureates and three Australians of the Year, comes after years of concern about the government’s management of the country’s historical record, and a somewhat despairing review of funding, to which the government has not responded.

The letter writers’ common ground, they wrote, is that they “share a deep love for the knowledge of Australia’s past embodied in its archives and libraries.” They charged that “the news that significant sections of the National Archives of Australia, a repository of literally irreplaceable historical records, was dissolving down to nothing, was met with a shrug by the federal government,” and that the paltry response betrayed “the historical nihilism of the Liberal Party.”

The signers pointed to a detailed analysis of the situation by arts journalist Guy Rundle. He slammed the government’s response, as well as the Archives’ own listless advocacy for itself, as “genuinely shocking neglect by and of the Australian National Archives.”

Rundle wrote: “The archives appears to have allowed itself to approach a ‘digital cliff’ in which large amounts of material in the form of old tapes, film, and the like are hitting the point at which they dissolve into their elements.”

A report on the problems, completed in January 2020 but not released until last month (May 2021) by the conservative government of Scott Morrison, said as much, only in more sober language. David Tune, a former senior civil servant, took scores of submissions from interested parties — scholars, historical associations, and the like — to prepare his Functional and Efficiency Review of the National Archives of Australia.

His report recommended a modest $AU67.7-million increase in funding over seven years, enough to digitize just the most at-risk holdings. The federal government’s budget, handed down in May 2021, provided no increase.

The Tune report stated bluntly that “budget and staffing reductions are affecting our capacity to perform our fundamental role of securing, preserving, maintaining and making accessible the authentic and essential records of the decisions and actions of government, while providing high standards of service delivery that all Australians should expect from their National Archives.”

Tune drew particular attention to audiovisual holdings: “Among our urgent priorities are preserving the unique at-risk collections that tell the Australian story, including tens of thousands of deteriorating audio visual items that could be lost as soon as 2025.”

The director of the Archives, David Fricker, told a Parliamentary hearing in May 2021 that the Archives’ 115,000 hours of magnetic tape, and their contents, were at risk of being lost because time was fast running out to preserve them before they irreparably decayed. “It’s unlikely we’ll be able to preserve it all,” he testified. “So we have to lose some of it.”

Technological obsolescence also was looming as a severe problem, Tune noted in his report.

So was the tolerance of researchers. He wrote: “Backlogs in processing requests for government documents that should now be in the public domain are testing the patience of researchers.”

Among the Tune review’s recommendations was to make more of the Archives’ collections available “through innovative and engaging experiences in a new, purpose-built National Archives public building,” to replace the Archives’ current home in a repurposed government office building.

The review also recommended a general upgrading of the Archives, including boosts to its “digital and cyber-resilience capability.”

In their open letter, the 150-plus protesters objected that what seemed to be missing from government and even Archives calculations was that the Archives’ “most important users have yet to be born” and needed to be considered more urgently. “The value of many items in its collection may not become apparent for many years because we simply do not know what questions future inquirers may ask,” they wrote.

They added that neglect of the Archives was all the more disheartening given how highly the institution was regarded, only a decade ago. “In 2011 its reputation as an international leader in digital record keeping and preservation was recognised by UNESCO with the prestigious Memory of the World Prize.”

But through successive cuts, framed as “efficiency dividends,” the government had “weakened the National Archives’ capacity to undertake this essential work. Even the routine work of retrieving and clearing records for researchers has been compromised to the point that researchers can no longer undertake projects based on the archives with confidence that the records will become available in time.”

Even during this deterioration, the protesters wrote, the government had made a very large new investment in the Australian War Memorial. They were referring to a “kitsch” “half-billion National War Memorial” “boondoggle” glorifying Australia’s role in combats, as Rundle called it in his article. In that campaign, he said, the government was intent on pushing “an ever purer, simpler and more usable version of the past, in which the messy, chaotic history of our foreign wars is simplified to an eternal Australian spirit, and the frontier wars [against First Nations peoples] that constituted us are excluded from memory altogether.”

The government’s lack of response to the Tune review had been exacerbated by comments that a junior minister of the conservative government, Amanda Stoker, made to a parliamentary hearing in May. She told the hearing that the deterioration of Archives holdings was “business as usual” because “time marches on and all sources degrade over time.”

She said: “Let’s not pretend this is a matter that has cropped up as an isolated incident. It is part of the usual process of the work of the Archives.”

And, she added, alluding to charges of budget neglect, the National Archives should solicit philanthropic support to replace government funding of preservation of its records.

In Rundle’s view, Stoker was “sent out to go on the attack” for the government as one action in its culture war over Australian history. Rundle wrote: “Stoker did her duty, noting disdainfully that the government ‘had nothing to be embarrassed about’ in regards to Archives funding.”

“A shocking performance” was how Rundle characterized that testimony.

Equally disingenuous, Rundle and the open-letter writers charged, has been Stoker’s urging the Archives to ask the public to foot the country’s archival bill — to fund itself to a far greater degree through donations. (Those have trickled in, and memberships have risen modestly from a very low level.)

What archivists call a looming disaster, she viewed as a welcome opportunity, she said: “It asks us to turn our minds to what represents an enormous transformation of the way we do archives in this country.”

So, while an earlier report, a 2016 review of aspects of operations of the National Archives, found that at the current rate of digitization it would take 1,400 years to digitize the entire collection of 361 shelf-kilometers, which the review conservatively estimated would cost $5.2-billion, Stoker dodged the question of whether her government would provide any new money, and spoke of advancing “a different approach to simply putting a few more dollars in the tin.”

Asked when the government would take any steps, itself, to addressing the problems identified in the Tune review, on which she and her colleagues had sat for over 15 months, she said: “I’m going to keep you in suspense.”

The letter writers did not take well to that. They wrote: “The National Archives is not a charity that should have to shake a tin or secure buy-in from the public for support. It is a legislated responsibility of government and should be adequately funded from public revenues. No other national archive is reliant on private funds for its core functions of preserving the records of the national government.”

One of the signers of the open letter, journalist Gideon Haigh, said in a radio interview that the suggestion that crowdfunding or philanthropy might fund the multi-million dollar digitization costs as “an ideological drive to defray the government’s expenses” and “absolutely risible.”

— Peter Monaghan

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