New professional Sue Halwa shares her experience of her first ever Archives and Records conference
I recently had the opportunity to attend my first ever records and archives conference. As a fairly new graduate from the UCL course, I made my way up to a wet and miserable Dundee in the beginning of April with a sense of excitement at what the next two days would bring.
The conference was a joint collaboration between CAIS (Centre for Archive and Information Studies) at the University of Dundee, and FARMER (Forum for Archives and Records Management Education and Research). The title of the conference was “Activation and Impact: The Societal Role of Records and Record-Keepers”, and which was held in a nice hotel close to the Dundee waterfront.
The theme of the conference was that of records in society and how archivists and records managers can and must play an active role in ensuring justice, safeguarding critical information, working with communities and ensuring that voices marginalized or mistreated in society are heard. Many speakers from within and outside the UK attended the conference – many of whose names I recognized from the copious readings we had to do through the course: Sue McKemmish, Eric Ketelaar, Randall Jimerson, Elizabeth Shepherd, Jeanette Bastian, and Anne Gilliland. Other delegates included many other names I recognized from the ARM world as well as students from the CAIS course, and also three of my lecturers from UCL.
Following a hearty calorie-laden Scottish breakfast, the first day of the conference began with a fascinating talk by the keynote speaker, Elizabeth Emmerson, who, as Chief Archivist for the United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, is involved in the collecting, processing and safeguarding of evidence related to the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, and how vital it was to protect information, some of which was considered extremely sensitive that could have devastating consequences should it be made available.
Elizabeth’s talk reminded and reinforced to me that archivists and records managers do a whole lot more than caring for and providing access to historical records, or safeguarding a businesses’ records and their corporate identity – they have a responsibility to ensure that documentary evidence of injustice and crimes (often appalling) are preserved, made safe and readily available for the process of prosecution to take place and (hopefully) for healing to begin amongst the victims and affected communities.
This was a theme continued the following day by three archivists from Canada (Nichole Vonk, Marianne McLean, Nancy Hurn) who shared their experience in working with aboriginal survivors of the largely church-run residential schools as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were involved in collecting testimonies of survivors which would then be used in determining compensation for what they had suffered. Two of them currently work for churches that were directly involved in this attempt of cultural genocide, and how they are trying to reconcile with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities by helping them discover their past and heritage so as to give them not only a sense of identity, but also provide them with the basic identification and knowledge that most people take for granted. For example, Nancy told of a story where she was asked by a survivor to find out something as simple as her date of birth so as to find out whether she was able to apply for a Canada Pension, which Nancy was able to do through finding her baptism record held in the church’s archives.
Others talked about the need for effective records management, particularly in child care and adoption records, as without these records (lost? destroyed?), care leavers may lack the necessary information that underpins who they are and where they’re from, that would often otherwise be gained through family anecdotal evidence or lived experience. Both these ideas were highlighted by Hugh Hagan from the National Records of Scotland and Dr. Joanne Evans from Monash University who both stressed this point but also discussed the challenges in providing access to some of these records due to Data Protection legislation.
There were other interesting topics raised at the conference. Jeanette Bastian of Simmonds College, Boston talked about an ongoing project of hers alongside Andrew Flinn of UCL of examining the different types of Archives and Records Management courses being offered around the world and highlighting global and regional trends in what was being taught and where. Then, Katharine Stevenson from Lloyds Banking Group gave a very thought-provoking talk about records management in a Web 2.0 world, and discussing how people select, categorize and share information held in various personalized platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. There were also some more ‘academic’ presentations, some of which left my head spinning and made me think I was back in a lecture theatre taking a class on archival theory and concepts.
Of course, the 2 days was not all listening to presentations. There were numerous opportunities to meet new people, catch up with familiar faces, and a great way to network. On the first night of the conference I attended the conference dinner which was great fun, and gave us all a chance to talk a bit more freely about other things besides records and archives, and which, for some, was likely helped by the numerous bottles of wine at each table!
On reflection, I had a wonderful time in Dundee. My purpose to go was to meet new people and also because the topic of the conference really interested me. The theme of what records do in society particularly resonated with me as I am currently working as an Assistant Records Manager in local government undertaking records surveys. This involves meeting people across the council and interviewing them to find out what information they hold (in whatever format), what is the process that creates those records, how long are they retained for, where are they kept, and also to identify any risks that could potentially result in the loss of that information or its unauthorized access.
The conference proved to me how imperative it is for my organization, particularly one that holds so much information about almost every aspect of our lives (Council Tax, environmental services, planning of new homes and business, children’s and adults’ social services, highways infrastructure and maintenance, etc.) to know what information it holds so it can effectively operate, be accountable to the Government and the public, handle FOI requests, but also manage the records that are the foundation of our everyday lives.
I believe this conference has really helped me in my job, I really enjoyed myself, met some wonderful people, and am already planning my next one in Montreal!