Archives and Leadership

In many organisations, the idea of an archive has little or no traction with their leaders. This impacts in the short term on the reduced level of resources made available to archives, and in the long term on the lost legacy and diminished collective memory of organisations.

The idea of an archive has developed over they years. It’s origins can be found in the practices of libraries and museums, and an archive is still sometimes a storage room within one of these institutions. Similarly, the early archival processes tended to follow classification systems used by librarians and by museum curators. More recently, the structures and processes around archiving have matured, developing their own international standards which learn from some of the previous assumptions, mistakes and short-cuts.

Perhaps the key concept to the modern archive is that of provenance. Previously, the contents of an archive were often rearranged to make them ‘tidy’, to provide a semblance of order and structure. Everything to do with old cars got put in box A, and so on. Unwittingly a massive amount of connected or tacit knowledge was lost by doing this, sometimes irretrievably. Today the archive is carefully kept ‘as found’, and we find the individual items of interest by indexes or catalogues or search engines; the so-called finding aids, as well as by old-fashioned browsing. Some changes to found materials are essential, such as removing any unstable chemicals and infestations, but the essential shape and order of the materials is left unaltered. If there is a structure, then it is imposed on the finding aid, the metadata, and not on the material itself.

A good introduction to the work involved in making and keeping an archive is given in the book, Managing Archives by Caroline Williams (Chandos, 2006). She explains in detail how not every object is suitable for an archive, probably to the disappointment of hoarders everywhere. Uncle Fred’s old tin cans are just that, not a wider comment on a lost social history. But then some items are worth keeping. Not just on paper, there is also useful knowledge in photographs, video tapes, audio cassettes, vinyl records, as well as on old parchments and ancient clay tablets. Parts of an archive can also remain designated closed to public access for a number of years. One example is for 100 years to protect the privacy of people still alive; another typical example is for 20 years to protect commercial, government and political secrets.

Professional archivists often get offered far more collections of materials than they are able to accept. The judgements on which collections to acquire for an archive are sometimes very practical around space and preservation requirements, but there is also the question of will anyone learn anything from this in the future? If Uncle Fred kept every different label design of tomato soup cans for fifty years, then yes maybe. If he just kept every label regardless, or whatever, for fifty years, then no.

It is this thought – will anyone learn anything from this collection in the future – which I suggest is difficult for many leaders today. The focus for success is too often centred on getting your message across, managing expectations, quarterly performance targets, good publicity, reducing costs, and similar requirements. And sometimes like football club managers, the lifecycle of a leader is all too short and who can blame them for making their hay while the sun shines. There will be plenty of time to look back on the legacy later. Except, no-one else really knows the details of that legacy because all that remains are a few leaflets, press cuttings and slides.

Being a leader who values and nurtures the organisation’s archive is a brave and a generous decision. Brave because who knows what people might learn in the future? While others were busy shredding their files, you have put them ‘out there’, and for sure at least a few people will use the archive to criticise the organisation and all who were involved in it.

And generous because it costs leaders some time and effort to create and sustain a lasting archive, to persuade others to go along with it, when there is no short term return. It is one thing to try and create a shallow legacy of statues and boardroom wall photographs, it is far better to allow a rich legacy which is to be explored and written by others many years on.

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