Is a “digital black hole” the main challenge to business archives? At the ICA SBA conference in April 2017, we asked archive professionals from over 30 countries to list the future challenges for business archives. Anders Houltz summarizes the top five that they identified.
At the International Council of Archives’ (ICA) Section on Business Archives’ (SBA) conference in Stockholm in April 2017, 150 professionals from over 30 countries had gathered for a two-day meeting about the future of business archives. In the midst of presentations from fellow business archivists, the crowd took some time to workshop around the question “In five years from now, what will our main challenges be?”.
Among the flurry of suggestions and ideas, a few trends stood out. Here’s a summary of what emerged as the top five challenges five years from now for business archives.
1. Coping with digitization
Everything not digital ‘does not exist’, everything digital is difficult to preserve.
There is an expectation that everything will be digitised and readily available at the click of a button.
Archival digitization obviously offers an array of opportunities. At the same time, it is the most urgent challenge to the field – and one with many aspects. How do we create routines for archiving “born digital” material? How do we appraise and select what to preserve, or should we indeed preserve all that there is? Several technological issues remain unsolved and the methods are not yet standardized, neither within organizations or nations, nor internationally. Can we guarantee long-term preservation of digital files? Digitization also raises the question about the status of analogue documents. Can the original documents be discarded once they have been digitized (thus reducing storage expenses)?
The authenticity and the information value of the original document is weighed against the cost efficiency and searchability of the digital copy. Finally, digitization means fundamental changes from the perspective of archive users. Coming generations will be used to finding information digitally, they will be less inclined to visit physical archives and to search and read original, often handwritten, documents. They will expect to find information available on the internet. The possibilities offered in terms of transparency and digital open access stand against aspects of personal integrity, ownership rights and corporate protectiveness.
2. Remaining relevant
We need to make management aware that history is more than a thing to organize a jubilee around.
Still struggling to persuade management people that heritage is important for future business.
Corporate archives must constantly justify their existence and their position within the organization and in society. They need to find arguments for the value of history and concrete examples where corporate history is an asset to be calculated with. Some commentators are worried that we presently experience a wave of nostalgia and interest in the past, which, when it tapers off, will be replaced by one-eyed future focus. To avoid this, archives must show the significance of past decisions to both the present situation, and to future scenarios. It is important to stress that corporate social responsibility also includes history. Also, with increasing globalization of corporate organizations comes the need for archives to represent and document activity in many countries and different parts of the world.
The pace of change in company organization is increasing. With revolving personnel in influential positions, archives must be prepared to communicate the use and importance of history to new groups within the organization again and again. Relevance is not achieved once and for all, but must be reaffirmed even in companies with a long history. In new companies, the challenge is to motivate preservation, and archives, in the first place. Especially in born-digital branches this is a demanding task.
3. Finding funding
The professionalization is done, the museums are built – on what level should we stop growing?
Economic pressure will always be a factor requiring archivists to justify their collections. Many professionals have experienced palpable cuts and reduced funding in recent years, and unless we manage to communicate the investment value of recording history, this development will continue.
The ever-increasing demand for cost-efficiency makes company leaders inclined to reduce designated posts for records management. Digitization may also give way to outsourcing or delegation of archive responsibility to external or internal resources without professional training or general insights considering authenticity, historical credibility and long-term reliability.
Another economic challenge is related to space: the costs of storage increase, while archive volumes grow, which means increased expenses. Onsite archives are replaced by offsite alternatives which leads to a weaker day to day connection between management and archive.
4. Keeping up professional competence
The de-professionalization of the profession becomes acute when anyone can ‘archive’.
In the post-fact world, we will be seen as a threat to the ambitions of the powers-that-be – our challenge is to continue to preserve and disseminate. Speaking truth to power.
Closely connected to the question of funding is the issue of training, recruiting and maintaining a staff of professional archivists or records managers. Coming generations of archivists will need combined skills in order to handle principal issues of heritage management, but also to manage specific questions related to both physical and digital archives. In a digitized environment, corporate executives may be tempted to hand over records management to IS/IT departments. Some commentators see a trend to disregard the expert role of the archivist, in a situation where seemingly all information is digitally available. Others instead see an opportunity for archivists to expand their responsibility and prove their value as keepers of all content. More common, however, is the concern that the integrity of the archivist is at risk when the professional role is drifting towards storytelling, brand management and marketing – as providers of content to a marketing department.
A key factor is training and education. Several mention the need for improved, qualified university level education and advanced retraining courses for archivists, but also for archive elements included in management education, in order to enhance awareness of archival work and heritage management as an asset in business.
5. Safeguarding credibility
Archivists run the risk of becoming just ’storytellers’.
We may see the disappearance of archives as an independent field. It will merge into the field of content.
Some foresee the future disappearance of archives as an independent field. As providers of “fast facts” for social and other media, archives will lose the authority associated with authentic documents, and become irrelevant, they fear. The challenge lies in tackling whatever follows the storytelling and fast fact trend in a way that keeps the integrity of archives intact.
The way forward for business archives, and indeed all heritage institutions, must be to be receptive to change while at the same time keeping focus on authentic content and fact-based history writing. If maintaining this balance, archives may welcome challenges such as digitization and increasing demand for information as what they essentially are – opportunities.