Archives and people – The Universal Declaration on Archives

This week I am teaching the second part of a unit on access, reference and community engagement as part of an archives concepts and practices class for undergrads and postgrads. I was presenting on the ICA Universal Declaration on Archives and in particular how archives are conceptualised via protection, preservation, usability, and authentic evidence. The Declaration focuses on the competence of archival management and the role of the archivist and institution in this role. The Declaration also talks about access in relation to being open yet constrained by legal frameworks and the rights of individuals, creators, owners and users.

And while I am saying this I realise a few things:

  1. Subjects of records are not specifically included or mentioned. This is one of the biggest areas of contest and discussion in the archival field. With specific relation to people who want to use or have access to records related to human rights, redress, and healing. Sometimes subjects of records are actually the owners of records but no one tells them they are. (A story for another time).
  2. The entire Declaration is about the archival profession and archival institutions, not archives. Or as Verne Harris would say ‘Archive’.  From my perspective archives are those spaces where people engage with memory-making. They may not be literally passed on from one generation to another, but they may have some continuing value for that person or others who interact with the Archive. Generations of cultural stories are archives. How we understand what to do in social media is part of the memory or archive of how social media is constructed. Archives are about memory and remembering. Sharing and passing along an understanding. It does not have to be about handing over artefacts. The evidence of culture is everywhere. Not just in documents.
  3. I heard a story about access to archives and the records they contain while under a grossly inhumane regime. Those working in institutional archives figured out ways to get restricted records accessible to the people who needed them to find out where people went, what decisions were being made and so on. What does pertinent laws, as stated on the Declaration on Archives mean anyway?
  4. Archivists are not archives. Archivists are professionals who work in archives. But others work in and on archives, creating them for various purposes. The Statement negates the entire field of community archives and archives that are reactions, counter and heritage of action such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Database (MMIWD), the Sex Work Database (SWD).

I remember having similar conversations to those points I wrote above about the Declaration on Archives when it was published. I like the poster and I teach with it every semester, but it needs some rethinking about what archives mean to people. And that the Archive is about people, not about documents, so how is it possible to construct a Universal declaration that includes these critical points of view?

And while I am watching Tim Sherratt’s Keynote from last year’s ASA conference I am reminded on Eric Ketalaar’s thoughts on how access ‘enables use’ and that ‘we have a right to know’. Last week in class we examined the NAA records to look for decisions about records and access to them, noting that it was a challenge. Yet we also saw the week before that the CRS provides an extremely useful understanding of context in records (links to other entities in time and the recordkeeping that created the records). But it does not document adequately the actions and implications of archives being about people (and potentially their access and use by people for people-centred reasons such as human rights). There is lots to say about description and the role it plays, but description is a system to follow. Recordsearch is a system that we see and interact with. How description is implemented and how those descriptions can be accessed and seen is vital to how archives play a role in society. That is what Tim is talking about (but I am only 10 minutes in – can’t wait to hear what is next).