I want it all

The new V&A building in Dundee
The new V&A at Dundee (author’s own, CC-BY)

I was very excited to be attending the ICA_SUV conference on appraisal in Dundee not least because it was my first visit to this most interesting of Scottish cities. I even went up early so I could take in some of the sites, such as the new V&A, the RRS Discovery and the Dundee 71 Brewing Brewery…

Beer at the Dundee Brewery tap
71 Brewing beer at the brewery tap (image author’s own CC-BY)

The conference theme was appraisal, relevant to every archivist, records manager, information professional, data curator or whatever you call yourself, and it was particularly good to have this discussion at an international conference. There was a significant US/Canadian presence and many other countries as well, so the differences in record keeping practice and tradition varied quite considerably, adding to the richness of the debate.

I had chosen to speak at the conference about my work on email appraisal and I am hoping that the text and slides will be shared so I can post a link to them and I will certainly post more on that work in the future and developments since I made my conference presentation.

It’s hard to pick out high lights of the conference but I really enjoyed hearing from Karolien Claes from the University of Antwerp on developing a toolbox and guidelines to help academics manage their own records – it sounded like (and Karolien must forgive me if I totally misrepresent her work) a blend of Research Data Management, records management and personal digital archiving and a good example where a range of approaches from across disciplines can help work towards the goal of (digital) preservation. Professor Basma Makhlouf Shabou (Geneva School of Business Administration) also discussed some very interesting work taking place in Switzerland for automating various archival processes, and in particular appraisal using a tool they have called ArchiSelect. Whilst there are often tensions around the idea of automated processes which perform such a subjective and human element, very careful testing showed the Swiss researchers that a large percentage of tasks could be automated. In the era of Big Data it would be impossible to process manually this so a level of automation is required to do anything at all. Shabou was keen to stress that these tools support decision making rather than replace decision making so I don’t think we need to feel as if our jobs are going to be taken by robots just yet.

Robot (Image by uleem odhit from Pixabay)

Another presentation that stuck with me particularly – and something that many of us probably don’t give as much thought to as we should – was from Renata Arovelius and Karl Petterson from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Whilst the record keeping tradition and environment has some marked differences to other countries (for example the UK) but some of the issues remain a constant. Petterson posed the question – when we say we have deleted digital files what exactly do we mean by this? (Spoiler – when you click on the delete button your data doesn’t actually evaporate – see for example ICO guidance on deleting data). It’s a really interesting point – Petterson speculated that Swedish law is not clear on what “deleted” actually constitutes and it is probably not the only legal system where this is also the case.

Specimen brought back from the Antarctic by the RRS Discovery
Preservation brought to you by the Antarctic explorer vessel RRS Discovery (author’s own CC BY)

One of the talking points of the conference was Geoffrey Yeo’s keynote and subsequent “provocation” (at least I think that’s what it was meant to be…) that in the context of digital records the archivist should keep “everything” because the subjectivity of the appraising archivist is removed and the previous barriers of sorting and finding “relevant” (to the researcher) material is made possible by the vastly improved and refined search capabilities. There are a number of problems with this position but to be fair to Yeo he was challenging the audience (and perhaps the wider archival community) to defend a theoretical (as opposed to practical) justification for appraisal in the digital age. In some ways the argument (like the justification) remains theoretical because the bottom line is that we do not have the resources to do so, be it economic or environmental. Environmental concerns are the topic of a recent article by Keith L. Prendergrass, Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh and Laura Alagna. For all of us environmental impact must be our priority concern which applies to paper as well as to digital of course so any other considerations seem somewhat meaningless. It was helpful though to think through all the reasons for undertaking appraisal and not merely regard it as “a thing which archivists do”.

wind farm - a source of renewable energy
Wind farm (Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay)

If in some mythical future where we had discovered an unlimited sustainable form of energy that would allow us to keep everything would we do so? I don’t believe we would because we always need to keep in mind that digital or otherwise the bit streams that sit on our servers are actually people’s stories, people’s experiences and people’s lives. And in this we have a responsibility to manage these archives responsibly. There are lots of things we would never wish to be kept – I would be mortified if job application forms from when I was in my teens surfaced (unless I was considerably more sophisticated than I remember myself to be), emails from many moments in my life, medical records, school attendance and behaviour records. There are numerous types of data which there is an expectation it will be forgotten and deleted as UK and EU GDPR legislation frames. And whilst the law also supports archiving in the public interest and allows for the a refusal of a request for erasure this is not and should not be justification for not treating the people whose records they are with respect. The law describes the record keeping activity as being in the public interest and this needs to be the touchstone upon which we base our appraisal decisions. So yes – we do need to appraise because we have a moral and ethical duty to do so. So no – I don’t want it all. I will take on the appraisal challenge with all its difficulties and complexities. I just need to work out how to make sure what I delete really is deleted…

Minnie the Minx - born in Dundee
Minnie the Minx (author’s own CC BY)

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