Keynote presentation to CARBICA Digitization Workshop

Presenter: Professor Jeannette A. Bastian, School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College, Boston.

Thank you very much for the invitation to this CARBICA workshop and conference. It is both an honor and a privilege to be here. My charge today is to talk to you about archives and records, particularly digital records, and the value of both paper archives and digital archives to their governments and to their communities.

I’d like to begin with a story.

Imagine that it is 1992 on a small fictional island nation – let’s call it St. Andrew. The government of St. Andrew has decided to install an underground pipeline that would take water from the main city out into the country villages, and then to build a road over the pipeline that would greatly improve access and travel to the city for those rural communities. When the proposed project was first introduced, it created a huge uproar, a controversy immediately erupted between the government and many of the citizens who lived in the path of the pipeline. Even the residents in the remote villages themselves were against the project. Installing the pipeline and the road meant the relocation of houses, new plumbing as houses would need to be attached to the pipeline. That the new road would increase traffic was seen as a minus and not a plus – too many people and cars, the flow of everyday life would be disrupted and inconvenienced ! Many letters of complaint were sent to government offices, many community meetings erupted in anger, a lawsuit was filed.   Nonetheless, government engineers drew up the plans, memos and policies circulated, inspectors tested the water quality, efforts were made to convince the community of the advantages. Two years later, the pipeline was laid and the road was built. The maps, the plans, the photographs, the meeting minutes and the letters were all filed away in the appropriate government offices and over time, most of them were sent to the archives.

To the surprise of the villagers, and to the vindication of the government, the pipeline and the new road was a huge success. Now that there was a reliable water source and good access, a hotel was built in that remote countryside bringing welcome jobs to the residents, the new road provided opportunities for increased commerce between the city and the country, travel around the island became easier. As applications for new hotel permits, rezonings and shop licenses increased, the Tourism department documented these activities in annual reports and other data charts. Again, over time, most of this documentation also made its way to the archives.

Twenty-five years later, in 2017, the original pipeline has become outdated and the road, now heavily used, badly needs widening and upgrading. The government decided to study whether it would be economically feasible to revisit this project, improve the pipeline with newer materials and upgrade the road to a highway. In order to make a decision, they needed to be able to study the original engineering plans, water tests, and other infrastructural records. Government officials also wished to revisit and understand the controversies, discussions, letters and even the lawsuit to make sure that they would not make the same mistakes again in selling this project to the communities. Importantly they also needed to review all the zoning and permit changes to determine whether this project was economically feasible enough to convince banks to loan them some of the money.

The original project and its many records had been created in the age of paper. Although some maps and plans were still in the office of Public Works, most of the records were now in the archives. Gathering these records together, the archivist was able to reconstruct the project –controversies and all – and advise the government on the issues. Evidence of the increasing economic activity would help the government make its case to the banks, and again the archives was able to produce data, annual reports and white papers detailing the economic benefits that had accrued. Based on all this information, the government could go to the communities involved and convince them that the upgrade, while inconvenient, would be worthwhile. The existence of engineering and architectural plans made it possible for the Public Works department to make revisions and move ahead with speed.

Paper was king in 1992 and the preservation of all this paper in the archives – the material evidence and traces of the project – made it possible for the government to move ahead with confidence and cost-saving. But in 2017 as the government began to develop its new plans, paper had been replaced by the personal computer. Now the engineers used CAD software to draw up the highway plans, financial and economic data was entered into online data bases, emails with attachments flew back and forth between government offices as the plans were discussed and refined. The government created a facebook page about the projects to inform citizens. And even the citizens preferred to tweet their complaints to government offices. This second project again was a success and even more hotels were built and commerce increased. But while a few of the documents about the project that had been printed out were sent to the archives, and even though the archivist had offered to build a central digital repository to maintain the records, most of the digital records remained on government servers.

Flash forward ten years later to 2027, the government decides to built a four-lane highway where the original road had been. And you can all guess the end of this story.

The records from the 1992 project were still safely preserved in the Archives, but the records from the 2017 project were very difficult, even impossible to reconstruct. The technology had changed many times in ten years, the records were either in formats that were obsolete and could no longer be read, or the data had been abandoned and lost when offices had upgraded their computers. Even the few printed fragments had little informational value because they had been linked to other online data that was missing from the printed version. Because the digital material had never been sent to a central digital repository in the archives where the archivist could preserve, organize and migrate it as the technology changed, it had been lost. And our memories erased.

Although this is only a fictional story, the story of St. Andrew and the loss of digital memory is happening all around us. In fact I can guarantee that somewhere – probably in my home state of Massachusetts – digital memories are being lost right now as we speak.

Part of the reason for that loss is that we, as a society, no matter where we live, tend to think of archives and records in a somewhat passive way, we don’t think of them as affecting our everyday lives. And somehow we don’t connect our digital activities to the keeping of records and memory. We don’t recognize that the digital documents we create everyday need the same care, the same preservation, the same resource investment as those paper archives. The first ‘place’ that the word ‘archives’ conjures is often a dusty warehouse or a moldy, airless back room. Even though today the word ‘archive’ has acquired a multitude of online shapes and formats and ‘archiving the web’ has become a common phrase, we still tend to think of archives as old documents of one type or another –often static, dead, and generally of value primarily to historians and genealogists.

In reality, while records or archives are of course those traditional historical documents, manuscripts and photographs, today they are also the emails, instagrams, digital images, blogs, tweets and facebook pages that we personally create every day, as well as the electronic files, forms, data and reports created by governments.  Rather than static entities, archivists understand that records are dynamic, always in a state of creation, open to new interpretations, offering new dimensions of meaning depending on who is reading them, under what conditions and where. In our very digital age, our records are moving so quickly that if we don’t capture them right away, they will be gone.

That many people in the region care about their archives and records has been clear from the overwhelmingly positive response to this effort and from the many essays we have already received. Up to date we have over twenty essays written by archivists and academics throughout the Caribbean (including the St. Kitts Archivist Mrs. O’Flaherty) and we anticipate at least another 6 to 8. I’ve been learning many things about Caribbean archives and I’ve been struck by the overwhelming desire to bring the Caribbean into focus through the lens of its archives – not so much its old historical colonial archives, but the new records being created every day – and this includes a great awareness of the need to preserve digital records –the archives of the future.

What have I learned from these essays? I would like to tell you about one of them. Its an essay written by two archivists from Puerto Rico who tell the story of the development of the Puerto Rican archives. I feel that this story holds a lesson that seems applicable to many archives in the region.

As many of you know, for the past year and a half, my colleague, Stanley Griffin at UWI and I have been working on compiling and editing a Caribbean Archives Reader. This reader is not only meant to be a supporting text for the new Masters of Archival Science at UWI, but to bring the keeping of records and archives to the forefront as both a significant tool, and an important governance strategy for the region.

Originally colonized by Spain, Puerto Rico became a colonial territory of the United States in 1898 and remains so today. Under Spanish rule, the archives created in the colony were kept in archives in Spain but the treaty of 1898 mandated that many of these colonial archives be transferred back to Puerto Rico. It was not until 1955, that the government of Puerto Rico created a National Archives to house these colonial records as well as the new records of the territorial government. The authors point out that, “The founding of the National Archives was not just an administrative decision by the new Puerto Rican government, but its creation and management was fraught with symbolic meanings to establish a place, a knowledge space” for the Puerto Rican people. This ‘knowledge space’, the physical location of this new archive was in a historic building from the Spanish period. By tying the archives to a historical building and then, later, making it administratively part of the Department of Culture, the archives was perceived as having primarily a cultural mission offering a “national history by Puerto Ricans for Puerto Ricans.” But today, this emphasis on the cultural mission of the archives combined with a lack of understanding by government administrations about what archives really are, has become a barrier for the Archive’s mission and role as a useful government agency. And so because the Archives are seen only as history and culture rather than as valuable and useful evidence of governance, their viability in a digital age of fragile records is greatly threatened. The authors write, “ here resides the dichotomy of creating the Archives as the custodian of the island’s collective memories, but not providing the necessary resources to manage the records that help shape those memories.”

Because I am a teacher, I often think in terms of teaching and so I would like to offer several lessons. The first lesson I would like to teach today is that although archives may be about history, history happens every day and happens all around us, it is always new and becoming. If the new history is not preserved then we will have no history.

The second lesson is that Archives are seen by their communities as trusted spaces, places that hold, preserve and authenticate the collective and cultural identity of citizens, that hold their history and, importantly, keep the records about them. Being a trusted space goes beyond merely sending records to the Archives. Once there, those records need to be cared for, protected in climate controlled environments, given sufficient space. the government, as well as the archivist has an obligation to the people to preserve and cherish their memories.

The third lesson – and perhaps this should be the first one – is that history, cultural identity and memory, critical though they may be, are only two aspects of archives. There is another critical aspect. Archives keep and preserve the evidences and the traces of the actions and activities that importantly keep governments accountable to their citizens, assist in governance itself, and preserve the memory of governments and states so that we do not forget our history but use it to maintain the present and to create the future. Just as on the island of St. Andrew, archives preserve data and information that can prove a case, that can build a road, that can upgrade infrastructure, that can encourage economic activity, that can support government decisions.

And so – in conclusion: Today, in 2017, the digital environment threatens all aspects of archives and record-keeping. And while the technological resources needed to preserve digital records may seem difficult to acquire, in reality, many of them already exist in our offices and even in our homes. We may be more technologically savvy than we think we are. We may have more technology available to us than we think. Open access software means that a wide variety of digital resources are available at little cost. Workshops such as this conference mean that expertise is not only readily available but that there is a great willingness to share and to collaborate. Within the islands of the Caribbean with its universities, with its global economies, and with its well-networked and connected people there is the knowledge and the skills to navigate the digital world. The digital environment has in many ways brought people together around common problems of access, of preservation and of maintaining our memories. Archivists are proud to be at the center of these debates.