Tag Archive for Archives

Back to the FOIA: FOI, historical records and archives

FOIMan writes about the relationship between FOI and the past.

Way back before I got involved with FOI, I started my career as an archivist. In my latest article for the Freedom of Information Journal, I’ve written about the complex relationship between FOI, historical records and archives. Both archives and FOI provide means to hold public authorities to account. So how do they interact – and is FOI damaging archives?

You can find out by reading the article here.

Laws and Original Order

FOIMan comments on reports that former Liberal Democrat Minister David Laws is refusing to hand over an infamous note to the National Archives.

We’ve seen plenty of FOI cases where the dispute was about whether the public body held the information concerned. There was Gove and Mrs Blurt, but there have also been disputes involving academy chains and private contractors and others beside.

This weekend it was reported that former Treasury minister and Liberal Democrat member of the coalition government, David Laws, was refusing to hand over the infamous note from Liam Byrne, his Labour predecessor, which indicated that there was “no money left” in 2010. The Treasury and National Archives have apparently both indicated that they would like Mr Laws to hand the note over as they believe it belongs to the State.

It’s not the first time that the ownership of historical papers relating to government has been a source of dispute. One of the reasons why there was so much criticism of the purchase of Churchill’s papers with £12.5 million of National Lottery money in the mid-1990s was that many believed that some of the papers were State papers removed by him when he left office.

When is a piece of correspondence a State paper and when is it personal correspondence? It’s not straightforward and just like FOI “held” decisions it will be a matter of examining the circumstances and context.

In this case, Mr Laws has indicated that he will leave the note to the State in his will. So why is this a big deal?

Aside from the potential financial implications, there are sound archival reasons why the National Archives will be keen to take custody of the note in question.

Firstly, a national archive is resourced to preserve documents for posterity. A note written in 2010 may not seem at risk, but in an individual’s possession it might be regularly handled, exposed to sunlight, coffee and wine spillage, and inadvertent misplacement. If Mr Laws is intending to wheel it out on the after dinner speaking circuit, these are clearly significant risks. That’s ignoring any inherent weaknesses in the paper – was it written on high quality acid-free paper or on cheap recycled paper that might yellow and fade faster? The National Archives’ conservators can slow and reverse damage to documents and all the better the sooner they have access.

Secondly, provenance or context is important when it comes to historical records. If a document is in the custody of a Record Office, locked away and only made public in controlled conditions, it is easy to prove its authenticity. If it is in private possession, and not properly safeguarded, then the risk is that it’s authenticity can be questioned. Doubt may arise that this is really the note that Liam Byrne authored. Maybe it’s been edited to make it more inflammatory; perhaps it was lost and replaced with a poor copy which failed to capture its nuances. This is perhaps less easy to demonstrate in this case where the history of a single paper has been well documented, but it is easy to see how it could become a serious problem with less public government files. How could we trust that they were reliable records of what occurred if we couldn’t be sure of where they’d been?

Mr Laws might have a good legal justification for believing that he “owns” the note. But given that he has already indicated his intention to return it to the State on his death, why not return it now? Refusing to do so might look to some like putting personal gain (even if just the kudos of being able to produce the controversial note at dinner parties) above service to the nation.

Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3817781/Former-minister-David-Laws-battle-National-Archives-Treasury-priceless-no-money-left-note.html


Who’s afraid of the dark age?

FOIMan explains why he’s not afraid of the dark age.

In my last post I recounted how pioneers in the UK have contributed to the development of digital preservation solutions over the last 20 years. This was inspired by several news articles at the end of last week reporting on Google Vice-President Vint Cerf’s comments heralding a “digital dark age”. In this piece I want to give my personal reaction to this apocalyptic prediction.

As I indicated in my previous post, the issues raised by Cerf are not new. And indeed he isn’t the first to suggest the dire consequences of a lack of action.

But are such visions realistic? My personal view is that they’re not. Let’s consider what happened in the past.

Acts of Parliament on parchment have survived for over 500 years

Acts of Parliament on parchment have survived for over 500 years

We tend to assume that electronic formats are somehow more fragile than previous media. This isn’t in fact the case. As any archivist or conservator will tell you, failure to keep paper or parchment at the right levels of temperature and humidity can lead to it becoming unreadable. In one job early in my career I found records being stored in damp, dank conditions under the Town Hall steps. They were covered in mould and fungi – to all intents and purposes unreadable. Some of the records were less than 10 years old.

Just as servers can be hacked, intruders or employees with a grievance can access offices and pick up files they shouldn’t have seen. Careless employees can leave files on trains or even in evacuated premises. Fire or flood can destroy whole warehouses of physical records without the insurance of a backup to restore the files.

These risks have always existed. And until more enlightened times, even governments failed to keep their records in suitable storage. Just read Caroline Shenton’s excellent book about the fire that destroyed the Palace of Westminster if you want some illustrations of this.

And yet… Record Offices hold vast quantities of physical records – they complain of lack of space and have significant backlogs requiring cataloguing. Historians will always want more, but the fact is that despite the poor quality of storage in previous eras, the limited literacy of earlier generations, and in some cases the passing of many years, archivists hold vast volumes of evidence on our past.

The problem in our era is not a sparsity of information. It’s a glut of it. And with so much information – whatever format it is originally created in – it is inevitable that a huge proportion of it will survive. Indeed it is fear that information will live on indefinitely that feeds current debate over the right to be forgotten.

It will survive because it is popular – the more copies of a file that exist, the more likely it is that some will remain (take, for example the four copies of Magna Carta recently exhibited together in London). It will survive because people are interested in it. FOI will play its role – now copies of government documents will be found in many personal collections and on websites as well as stored by their creators. A proliferation of information – facilitated in the digital world – will guarantee that vast quantities of it remain accessible to future historians.

The real problem is not whether there will be information that will remain accessible, but which information should do so. As I’ve suggested, lots of it will live on purely through chance. But it is important that organisations (and individuals too) identify the records that have most value – especially long-term value – and take deliberate action to preserve them. This too will happen because there are commercial, governmental or sentimental reasons to retain them. In my last post I explained the need for pharmaceutical companies to retain digital records – so they took steps to ensure that those records would be preserved. Similarly the digital photographs that you look at the most – of your children, your significant experiences – will almost certainly survive because you will regularly look at them and if you have problems accessing them you will do something about it.

Digital records require specific techniques to ensure their preservation (as indeed do records printed on paper or written on parchment). That’s why the work of the pioneers I wrote about in my last post is so important. But in principle at least, preserving digital records is no different to preserving records created in other formats. It requires the organisation or individual to first identify what it needs to keep (a point made by the National Archives’ Chief Executive, Jeff James, on Saturday’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4). How it will keep it is a secondary and technical question, but one that will be answered if the information really does have value.

This is why, short of a nuclear holocaust (in which case I suspect we will have more pressing concerns should we survive), I don’t think a dark age is coming, digital or otherwise.

Archives and Accountability

I’ve noticed a couple of Tweets today about threats to Archive Services/Record Offices. Notably at Doncaster, one of two archivist posts has been marked for the axe. And in Croydon, although it appears that the Local Studies Library has been saved for the time being, the Archives are still under review. These won’t be the last stories we’ll hear about Archives services being under threat.

Why is this important to those interested in openness? Archives are the ultimate form of accountability – or should be. We are used every new year to the disclosures from the National Archives as public records become just that. We find out the truth as to how decisions were reached. The true legacy of politicians and key figures becomes clear. And soon we’ll reach that point even earlier – the 30 year rule is in the process of becoming the 20 year rule.

Information that is exempt today under FOI will be open to all tomorrow. And the Archivists of this country are the people who will make sure that happens. The importance of their work, be it in the National Archives or in often long under-resourced local government Record Offices is often overlooked. But if you care about freedom of information you should care about what happens to your local Record Office and the Archivists who work there.

In the coming months and years, as councils and other public bodies seek to balance their books, there will be numerous suggestions that Record Offices and archivists should be cut. They’re potentially an easy target. Often they don’t have huge numbers of visitors walking through the door. But they will increasingly be making information available online and serving a much larger constituency around the world. They are a superb source (often untapped) for stories of local interest for journalists. And their true value lies in the long term – the ability for future journalists and historians to find out what really happened. If Record Offices are axed, records that might have been retained for future access will in many cases just be destroyed. Accountability will suffer.

Keep an eye on your local council and make sure that they know the current and long term importance of these services. Don’t let the need for short-term cuts destroy our ability now and in the future to interrogate the past.