The 3rd Forum of Archivists, which is to take place in Saint-Étienne (France) from 3 to 5 April 2019, will be the opportunity to take stock of current archival practices, in respect of transparency issues, and to consider future prospects. It will also be a chance for discussions with users of the records and data that archivists are partly responsible for preserving, and with the other professions contributing to producing information.
The Open Government Partnership, which was officially inaugurated worldwide on 20 September 2011, included a declaration in favour of open government, in which emphasis was placed on the importance of “transparency and participation in public contracting systems”. At the time the French Government was also working on application of Article 225 of the Grenelle II Act of 12 July 2010, which required companies to be more transparent in their social and environmental accountability undertakings.
In our modern society, transparency is increasingly equated with social progress. The obligation to ensure transparency is synonymous with easier access to the information produced by individuals or entities in the public or private sector as part of their activities and has direct implications for the archiving profession. Whether they work for the private or the public sector, whether they handle historical archives or contemporary records, archivists constitute a vital link in the information transmission chain.
Archivists have long had the fundamental task of providing information, initially for their employers and later for the public at large. This was clearly stated at the time of the French Revolution in the 7 Messidor Year II Act. Since then, archivists have always been there to enable people to achieve their goal of better understanding the society in which they live. The profession was well placed to recognise the trend towards increasingly individual and personal use of archives at a very early stage.
The oldest and best-known example of this trend is genealogy, which has lost none of its popularity. But there are also those who are keen to discover more about the history of their homes or towns. Individual research may also be driven by people’s urgent and compelling need to demonstrate their legal rights.
At first, archivists made documents available in public reading rooms but, in recent years, they have taken advantage of technological progress to make the documents in their possession more easily available and confer on them a truly intermediary role. Digital technology has, for example, been a major factor in raising the profile of archives in unprecedented fashion, especially with the digital records placed on line and the use of social networks.
Enormous progress has been made in the standard and amount of information available: archivists can provide access to large quantities of data and documents on line and give more explanations about search methods and procedures. They have also taken the initiative in seeking to democratise access to archives and break down the social and cultural barriers that stand in the way (from education and intermediation to more original approaches such as detective challenges as an entertaining way of discovering the world of archives).
But the transparency favoured today is not without its limitations. There is a real issue as regards the conflict between the right to knowledge and the need to protect certain confidential information, for reasons acknowledged by the law. Striking the right balance is not easy, a point addressed by Article 4 of France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (“Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others »), and archivists are fully aware of the historical background to an issue that goes back way beyond contemporary debate. The first bill voted post-Revolution in France on archives dates back to the turn of 1978/1979 and was flanked by legislation to guarantee access to administrative documents and personal data protection. As public servants responsible for enforcing the law, archivists were also the guardians of the temple, the stalwart defenders of confidential information.
As a result, they often found themselves at odds with society’s demand for permanent and increasingly direct access to vast and extensive sources of information relating to all aspects of a given period in a bid to hunt out the “truth”, a demand that shows no sign of abating. Current discussions on the notion of “essential records” and the consultations initiated by the Ministry of Culture on “tomorrow’s archives” are clearly indicative of the unflagging nature of this demand. Ignorance of the complications of the archivist’s job, its constraints and methods, has reinforced the impression that archivists were keeping certain things under wraps.
Today, obtaining access to information is not just about trying to establish the truth, it is also about being able to achieve efficiency in our daily lives. Since digital technology, largely via our smartphones, gives us constant access to on-tap information, we are always looking for new everyday applications to help us better to control our environment. “Open data” is the visible part of the iceberg, and the interface between this and the archival profession still has to be formalised.
This brief account of the role of archivists in the history of transparency begs a number of questions and would be worth examining in greater detail in many regards. But there is also another phenomenon, namely that of the changing definition of transparency, driven by the “disintermediation” allegedly ascribable to digitisation. Archivists like other producers, curators and communicators of sources of information (public and private sector executives, information technologists, historians, sociologists, ethnologists, data scientists, whistle-blowers, the press, the politicians, etc.), are challenged in their role of trusted third parties by an increasingly varied range of users.
While this forum targets professional archivists, it would be particularly interesting if it could be more than just the chance to mull over professional archiving practices but also the opportunity to share with the users and representatives of those professions that produce information in our society, the occasion to compare and contrast our opinions and experience.
To address all these issues, the scientific committee has selected three questions, each sub-divided into three streams (for more details of the issues addressed in these three streams, please refer to the digest produced by the organising committee – in French only).
Stream 1.1: Discovering the truth
Stream 1.2: Better managing one’s daily life.
Stream 1.3: Self-discovery
Stream 2.1: Efforts undertaken by archivists to raise the profile of their collections and innovations in this connection…
Stream 2.2: … but continued ignorance about the “archival industry”.
Stream 2.3: The archiving profession and the challenges of digitisation.
Stream 3.1: Right of access to archives and circulation of information.
Stream 3.2: Limits to the right of access to archives or to the circulation of information.
Stream 3.3: The right to be able to count on the trustworthiness of digital resources.
Those wishing to propose a contribution should complete the form which also provides explanations of the different types of contribution possible. Deadline: september 15th, 2018.