The National Archives: Holding the records of government safe?
Public records provide information about decisions and actions taken by government. This is of interest and use not only to those who seek to understand the past and make sense of the present, but those who are required to ensure operational continuity and plan efficiently for the future. In a democracy, reliable public records provide the evidence that empowers citizens to hold government to account, and enables government to demonstrate the actions it has taken to exercise its duties fulfil its mandates and honour its commitments to transparency. Without access to credible records citizens cannot support claims of poor service delivery, and government cannot defend itself against accusations of weak performance. When public records are unavailable or rendered inaccessible citizens may well view government actions with distrust – especially when suspicions of corruption are rife.
The weighty responsibility for the management and preservation of public records lies with the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa which was established as a branch of the public service by The National Archives and Records Service of South Africa Act, (Act No. 43 of 1996, as amended). Currently the National Archives functions as a programme within the Heritage, Heraldry and Archives branch of the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) and the National Archivist reports to the Deputy Director-General of this branch. Representations had been made to establish the National Archives as a branch within the DAC or alternatively to be declared an associated institution in the DAC. If the first suggestion is implemented the National Archivist will report directly to the DAC Director-General and if the second suggestion is followed, the National Archivist will report directly to the Minister of Arts and Culture. Amongst other duties, the Act tasks the National Archives, the National Archivist and staff with: ensuring the proper management and care of all public records (subject to certain conditions); preserving public records with enduring value; and making these records accessible for use by the state and the public. The Act sets out the powers that enable them to fulfil these duties and obligations.
The National Archives are also charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the records of government are properly managed by governmental bodies. The National Archivist is tasked with determining: the records classification systems to be applied to governmental bodies; the conditions subject to which records may be microfilmed or electronically reproduced; and the conditions subject to which electronic records systems should be managed. The Act gives the National Archivist considerable powers to discharge these responsibilities namely to: take such measures as are necessary to arrange, describe and retrieve records; make regulations, issue directives and instructions regarding the management and care of public records in the custody of governmental bodies and conduct inspections of public records. Furthermore, the Act makes it clear that no public record under the control of a governmental body may be transferred to an archives repository, destroyed, erased or otherwise disposed of without the written authorisation of the National Archivist.
The Act requires that public records of enduring value be transferred to an archive repository when they have been in existence for 20 years. It makes provision for the National Archivist to: identify records that should remain in the custody of the governmental body; identify and grant permission for records to be transferred to an archives repository before they have been in existence for twenty years; or defer the transfer of public records.
The National Archives and the National Archivist are charged not only with ensuring that the records of government are properly managed and preserved but also that they are accessible to the state and to the public.
While the Act deals specifically with the National Archives – in accordance with schedule 5 of the Constitution which makes archives other than National Archives an area of exclusive provincial legislative competency – and requires that the National Archives assist, support, set standards for and provide professional guidelines to provincial archives services it does not set in place the processes or mechanisms for such interaction.
On paper, it appears that due care has been taken to ensure that the all-important records of government are managed and held safe. But is this so in practice? The Archival Platform is concerned that this is not the case: that at best the records of government are vulnerable and inaccessible and at worst that they are absent and ultimately lost to the future. South Africa might have excellent archival legislation but without the necessary capacity and resources in the form of skills, infrastructure and equipment, the National Archives cannot be expected to fulfil its mandate. If it can’t do this, there is a risk that losing historical memory and the information citizens need to guard their democratic rights will be lost and forgotten.
Consider this. Until the late 20th century the records of government actions and decisions were recorded in document, on paper. The building in which the National Archives is housed has almost 66 linear kilometres of shelving space, and the shelves are full! The National Archives cannot take in, arrange and describe, preserve or store any more documents. With space in government offices at a premium, many public records are now packed away securely in commercial storage facilities. While the National Archives is required to approve these facilities, responsibility for the management and safe-keeping of the records lies with the governmental body which transferred them, and which also controls access to them. The fact that records are stored off-site hampers immediate access.
Confronted with information about the lack of space, many respond glibly that the problem could be addressed by digitising the records. This may well be a solution, but it presents a set of different problems. Digitisation requires skills and equipment: it’s a costly and time-consuming business. Documents still have to be arranged, collated and described and digitised records have to be carefully stored and managed, backed up, and reformatted as technology advances. Then too, decisions have to be made about what to digitise. In the absence of a clear policy this is a tricky question and fraught with numerous challenges. Although a National Policy on the Digitisation of Heritage Resources has been drafted, and is currently being costed, it has yet to be endorsed by parliament and implemented. For the record, the staff of the national Archives have prepared a digitisation strategy based on national legislation.
In the absence of both resources and policy, what is the National Archives to do? Extensions to the building were planned some years ago, but funds for the construction of these have not been forthcoming. But there is some short-term relief in sight. Pretoria’s Old Library Building is currently being renovated to provide a bit more storage space, a training room and an auditorium. There are also plans afoot to upgrade the National Archives building and to install a mobile storage that will increase shelf space by about 15%, making an additional 10 linear kilometres of shelving available for document storage. But, these are short terms measures.
There’s another worrying issue. Advances in technology and the escalation of electronic communications mean that many of the records of government are ‘born digital’. This presents a whole new set of challenges and risks, requiring different protocols and procedures. Paper-based records remain accessible and readable over time as long as they are systematically filed and physically protected. In a world of rapidly evolving technologies, the same cannot be said for electronic records. Noting that ‘the use of electronic systems by governmental bodies to conduct their business has significantly changed the way that records are created and kept’, and that the Act requires the National Archivist to determine the conditions subject to which electronic record systems should be managed and electronically reproduced, the National Archives compiled a manual in 2003 entitled, Managing electronic records in governmental bodies: policy, principles and requirements 2003. This document, which was substantially amended in 2006, proposes a strategy that is aligned with international standards and best practice. In the preface to the manual, the National Archivist warns that “without such strategic management, the records of governmental bodies will be insecure and the effective functioning and accountability of bodies, based as it is on the information held in their own records, will be jeopardised.” One can only hope that governmental bodies are adhering to the procedures laid out in this document. But, here’s the catch. Even if they are, the National Archives has no way of receiving those records. Until such time as they do these records are inaccessible, worse still, the longer they sit in storage the more likely it is that they will become obsolete: rendered indecipherable because the technology required to read them is no longer in use.
We should be worried – maybe even panic stricken – because the consequence of this is that the fear expressed in the manual, that, “there will be no long-term institutional and social memory of the present age in the custody of the National Archives and Records Service” will have been realised.
Technology is all very well and good, but the archives and archiving requires the services of experienced, skilled and knowledgeable people. The problem is that these seem to be in short supply at the National Archives. There are a few excellent, experienced archivists who have served the institution well for a number of years and are doing sterling work. But, they’re exhausted, demoralised and anxious about the future of the institution. They worry that it takes 2 to 5 years to train newcomers to do their work properly and that once people have the necessary skills they’re lured away by other, better-resourced governmental bodies, or the private sector, all too eager to offer better salaries in return for the services of archivists who’ve benefitted from their experiences in the national institution. Could the DAC not better the offer of competitors or offer incentives to encourage valued staff members to stay? It seems that DAC’s rigid human resource grading systems and procedures which do not recognise or accommodate ‘scarce skills’ make this difficult, if not impossible to do. In addition, too many posts are vacant, and there seems to be no hope that these will be filled in the foreseeable future. Another problem is that there was a time when staff would be rotated through different departments, gaining experience of the functioning of the institution as a whole, before settling into a position to which they were most suited. The discontinuation of this system means that when a vacancy occurs there is no one able to step in to fill the gap, even in the short-term. This puts added strain on existing employees and creates a blockage in the system. Staff, who are already overstretched, lurch from one crisis to another, trouble-shooting as they go, and cannot humanly be expected to deliver excellent services.
The impact of staff shortages is all too visible to visitors who make use of the reading-room – the institution’s public face. It’s annoying to be told to ‘buy your own paper’ as one of our researchers was told when he requested that photo-copies be made (1), irritating to have to sit around for lengthy periods until requested records are brought into the reading room and infuriating when wrong files appear or long-awaited documents are miss-filed or missing altogether. Then, it doesn’t help to know that one assistant is doing the work of two, with no relief in sight.
Staff shortages mean that there’s a huge backlog of records to be processed: retrieved, arranged, described and registered in the National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). Statistics provided in the DAC Annual Report 2010/2011 indicate that:
- 41,227 records were retrieved (down from 45,194 in the previous year)
- 1,123 linear metres of records arranged and described (up from 716 in the previous year)
- 36,293 forms data coded for the NAAIRS database (up from 35,860 in the previous year)
- There was a 26% increase on the previous annual average number of queries and hits on NAAIRS databases (up from 2% in the previous year)
- 100 % of Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) requests were processed – 34 requests (up from 86% of 42 requests in the previous year)
- 88% of draft file plans submitted were evaluated and 12 approved (up from 866% in the previous year)
- 100% of applications for disposal authority were processed (up from 20% in the previous year)
While the National Archives is working through the backlog, it is worrying to find that records that reflect key processes of our recent history are not yet accessible. The records of the Constitutional Assembly have, to some extent been arranged and described but the process is far from complete. The records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Archive have yet to be arranged and described. Given that there are 1.5 linear kilometres of records it is clear that this task will not be completed in the near future.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are positive developments, apart from the plans to upgrade the existing building and the Old Library to create additional shelving space; the premises of the National Film, Video and Sound Archives have been renovated to create state of the art storage facility. The NNAAIRS, the National Archives Website and the Digital Electronic Management System, are being completely revamped in a major project that will streamline the process of records management and facilitate accessibility. It’s encouraging to hear that the records of the Rivonia Trial, listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, are to be digitised, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. There have been positive discussions with the office of the Auditor General about the possibility of including records management as a function to be assessed when governmental bodies are audited.
These victories seem to be hard won and one has to ask why the National Archives is in such dire straits, why the Minister and the DAC don’t recognise or respond to the institution’s plight, and what can be done to remedy the situation.
One of the most disturbing observations arising from of the Archival Platform’s ongoing scan of the archival landscape is that the role and significance of archives is insufficiently understood. The National Archival system is unravelling, it is lacking in leadership, inadequately resourced and under-capacitated. The DAC seems reluctant, or unable to take decisive action to address this dire situation; and politicians seem not to understand or appreciate the role of the archive or the critical part it plays in speaking about the past, understanding the present, imagining the future, holding government to account or allowing it to trumpet its triumphs, and they lack the will to engage with the crisis or to make meaningful interventions to address it.
What do the archives need to remedy the situation before it becomes unsalvageable? The Archival Platform has identified five critical requirements:
- Visionary leadership: including a Council that brings the sector’s finest minds to bear on leading the institution into the future;
- A political champion: one who understands that archives play an important role in addressing the countries skewed history and are critical to democratic accountability and who is able to speak out loudly and passionately for archives in policy and decision making forums at the highest level;
- Visibility and status: as the governmental entity tasked with managing and preserving the records of government, the archives need to be promoted as one of the core institutions required to uphold democracy;
- Either a massive cash injection: such as the one-off conditional grant given to libraries to facilitate capital projects OR a new model / vision for the custodial function of the National Archives;
- Professional capacity: an expanded corps of archivists, records managers, conservators, information technology staff, etc: with the skills and dedication to deliver a National Archival system that meets the need of the state and its citizens to collect, manage, preserve and make accessible the records of government.
What is at stake if this situation is not addressed urgently is the irredeemable loss of information, as existing records are endangered and potential records ignored or rendered obsolete. When the archive is inadequate, dysfunctional or closed we lose the resources on which we depend to understand the predicament of the present; to make sense of the past; hold government to account and plan for the future; we lose a potentially dynamic public resource and a platform for public deliberation. These are losses our fragile democracy can ill-afford.
This is the first in a series of posts dealing with the National Archives and Records Services of South Africa. Future posts will address other issues including the work of the National Archives in respect of the provinces, records management, the repository, public outreach activity, the oral history programme, preservation, the UNESCO Memory of the World initiative, training and capacity building, the National Archives Advisory Council, and the National Film, Sound and Video Archives.
(1)Asked to comment on this issue the National Archives explained that, “Supply Chain Management at DAC is responsible to supply consumables such as photocopy paper and due to misunderstandings sometimes the National Archives has to go for long periods without supplies such as, in this instance, photocopy paper
Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform