A review of Archival Futures (Caroline Brown, ed.) by Adrian Cunningham

Longtime friend of the Recordkeeping Roundtable Adrian Cunningham worked for 36 years in collecting archives, government archives and in university settings and research projects. During that time his work traversed almost all functional areas of archival endeavour, with his latter-day focus being on digital recordkeeping and digital archiving. He has published widely and now operates as an independent consultant and is a member of ISO TC46/SC11 Committee on Records Management and Archives and as a member of the International Council on Archives Experts Group on Archival Description.


This review was commissioned by The American Archivist, which will publish a version of the review that is about half this length in Volume 82, Issue 1 (Spring/Summer 2019). The author is grateful to the Recordkeeping Roundtable for agreeing to publish the full, unabridged review. The book in question stirred more thoughts and reactions than could be squeezed into the 1500 word limit of a review for The American Archivist.

Predicting the future is a courageous, perhaps foolhardy, undertaking. A friend of mine once proposed to write a book called “Past Futures” highlighting some of the more ludicrous attempts to predict the future that were ridiculed by hindsight. Nevertheless, preparing for what the future might bring is prudent—even if it just takes the form of trying to comprehend the changing world around us and our place in it. As William Gibson once said, “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed” (p. 17). To help us grapple with our possible futures Caroline Brown, an educator and university archivist from the University of Dundee, has assembled a short, varied, but eminently readable collection of essays from an impressive range of leading international archival thinkers.

Kate Theimer opens the book with a rumination on the prognosis for our profession in her chapter, ‘It’s the end of the archival profession as we know it, and I feel fine’. Technological disruption is radically transforming most, if not all, professions. Some have completely disappeared or are well on the way to oblivion. Is our profession heading in the same direction? Witness such phenomena as artificial intelligence, the gig economy, and the explosion in and democratization of the means, volume, and speed of information creation, transmission, storage, and use. The place of professionals as privileged, expert gatekeepers can no longer be assumed. If this threatens you then being an archivist is probably not a good career choice. Already, much of what we used to regard as our bread and butter work is being carried out either by machines or by technologically-empowered citizen archivists.

As Theimer argues, this is not a bad thing. In fact, it is liberating. There have always been too many records and not enough archivists to manage them. Our vast holdings are ridiculously under-utilized and manifestly under-appreciated. The massive explosion in the volume of records creation has made our appraisal regimes not just inadequate but probably redundant. We have been weighed down by our backlogs and the constant feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of our tasks. While Theimer argues that smart technology should now be performing many of the more repetitive and mundane aspects of archival work, that does not mean that the role and work of archivists is being superseded – rather that the nature of our work is changing for the better. So, if high-volume tasks are now being consigned to other agents, what will be left for us to do? What value can we add to society in this brave new world?

The answer lies in being more proactive and externally engaged. There is no future in just waiting for records to be delivered to the doors of our repositories for processing, or waiting for researchers to ask us questions about our holdings. Instead we should be embedding long-term recordkeeping solutions in the design and implementation of information systems in order to make the downstream management and use of high-value, high-volume archives both seamless and achievable. Although Theimer makes no mention of him, this is something that David Bearman told us to do a generation ago.[1] The need to do this is growing and our unique skills are required now more than ever if the world is to be able to manage, trust, and make sense of the stupendous volume of data that is being created every day by our ubiquitous information systems. Another area of proactivity where we have had more success, aided in some areas by commercial partnerships, is in anticipating what archival materials people will want to use and putting them online so that users can help themselves—ideally, in the online places where people congregate rather than expecting people to come to us.

In chapter 2, ‘Whose truth? Records and archives as evidence in the era of post-truth and disinformation’, Luciana Duranti proposes another valuable role for today’s and tomorrow’s archivists—as protectors of truth. Being able to guarantee the integrity, reliability, authenticity, and trustworthiness of information has always been at the core of our professional mission. Rumors, falsifications, and disinformation are nothing new. They are as old as humanity. Social media, however, proliferates the means, channels, and platforms by which disinformation spreads. Add that to the dystopian realities of how big business, big government, and other sinister agents “hoover up,” aggregate, and analyze our personal data (where the data may or may not be accurate or reliable) in order to use that data against us. Duranti proposes “computational archival science” as a multi-disciplinary strategy for deploying our core skills as protectors of evidence to advance the cause of truth and transparency in the “post truth” world.

Duranti’s University of British Columbia and InterPARES colleague Victoria Lemieux explores ‘The future of archives as networked, decentralised, autonomous and global’ in chapter 3, focusing in particular on the transformative possibilities presented by blockchain technology. Best known as the technology that underpins crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin, blockchain stores authenticated records of transactions across distributed computers using peer to peer networks. Given its focus on independently guaranteeing the authenticity of records of transactions, blockchain is a technology that is of obvious interest and potential utility to archivists. Will blockchain make us redundant or could it be a “silver bullet” that helps us do our jobs in the digital, networked world where very little information can be trusted at face value? While blockchain may turn out to be a mere passing fad, it seems more likely that it will have a major impact on our world. As such, we must be prepared to engage deeply with its possibilities and work to ensure that the records stored in blockchains can be used and understood over time with an appreciation of their wider contextual meaning and relationships.

If archivists are to have any kind of future, a key question is whether there is a place in this future for appraisal—and, if so, how appraisal might be done. It is abundantly clear that past and present approaches to appraisal are failing. IT professionals, and from time to time some archivists, regularly assert that appraisal is unnecessary as we now have the means to keep everything forever. Geoffrey Yeo’s chapter 4, ‘Can we keep everything? The future of appraisal in a world of digital profusion’ explores this important question. Certainly, digital storage capacities have expanded exponentially at the same time as unit storage costs have dropped exponentially. Big data analytics have transformed the value and utility of what might once have been considered high-volume/low-value or transitory data. But this still does not mean that we can keep everything forever. Despite the advances mentioned above, the world’s ability to create new data continues to outstrip our ability to store it all. And while the unit costs might be heading inexorably south, the total cost of storing all this data still presents society with major challenges. New data centers commonly require the building of new power stations to feed their insatiable energy demands. Even with advances in renewable energy technologies, planet Earth cannot sustain a scenario where all data is kept forever. And even if it could and this could be justified, storage is just one of the costs of keeping digital records. Active management, sense-making, and preservation of the data is considerably more expensive than mere storage and has to be paid for somehow.

So, what do we do? Do we simply sit back and let natural attrition take its course and deal as best we can with the digital detritus that survives? Are any active choices to preserve some archives at the expense of others inevitably tainted by our arbitrary and subjective biases and therefore untenable? Do we have the right to play God in such a way? Certainly, one thing that has to change is our tendency to “cherry pick” classes of records for long-term preservation from within larger aggregations or records systems. This practice horrified Sir Hilary Jenkinson, who argued that it impaired the organic integrity and internal contextual interrelationships within records systems. With digital records it is usually cheaper and easier to preserve the entire output of a records system. And in cases where cherry pickling might still be worthwhile, we can use e-discovery technologies rather than ask human beings to undertake this thankless task manually. Appraisal decisions will in future be made not within records systems but about entire records systems. Which systems have records that are worth preserving in their entirety and which ones are not worth the cost and effort of active archival preservation?

Hard choices will still have to be made within a defensible and transparent decision-making framework. Appraisal has ever been thus—or at least it should have been. What has to change are our methods of appraisal. What also needs to change is our concept of what appraisal is. Appraisal cannot just be a set of post hoc selection decisions made about records that are deemed to be at their end of their “active life” —although the need to make such decisions will probably never go away. The better way to conceive of appraisal is that which is articulated in the second edition of the international records management standard, ISO 15489:2016 and its accompanying technical report on appraisal, ISO TR 21946:2018.[2] In these ISO documents appraisal is an ongoing and iterative process for determining needs for records. Once one knows what records are needed (by individuals, organisations and/or society) one can design information and archival systems that create, capture, describe, manage, store, preserve these records and enable their use. This is (or at least should be) one of our core skills—and is a skill that will be of even greater value to society as it struggles to cope with our data gluts.

The aforementioned David Bearman’s writing serves as a touchstone for Jenny Bunn’s chapter 5 ‘Frames and the future of archival processing’. Bearman’s calls in the late 1980s and early 1990s to reinvent archival methods continue to resonate today.[3] Bearman called on archivists to stop relying on their own hand-crafted descriptions but rather to reuse metadata created within records systems and supplement it with user-contributed metadata.[4] He argued that archivists should not describe records, but rather document records-creating activity. Much of Bearman’s thinking is now archival orthodoxy—at least in terms of lip service, if not actual practice. A recent example is the work of the ICA’s Experts Group on Archival Description and its draft conceptual model, “Records in Contexts.”[5] But Bunn has her doubts. She worries about the sustainability of an approach to archival documentation that relies on creating and maintaining systems to support separate, linked, interoperable descriptions of the various entities involved in record-making. She argues that a more realistic approach for archivists is to work as “sense-makers,” extracting and rendering meaning from the vast quantities of records that we seek to preserve using the clever and scalable automated processing technologies that are now becoming available (pp. 72-74). Her dose of realism is welcome and “sense-making” is undoubtedly a valuable contribution that archivists should always help to deliver. Nevertheless, I worry that if we narrow the scope of our objectives by retreating into a world of post-hoc analysis of records then the sense we might make of those records will be muddied and muddled at best.

Sonia Ranade’s chapter 6 is on ‘Access technologies for the disruptive digital archive’. Digital technologies offer exciting and seemingly endless opportunities for revolutionary improvements to systems and processes for accessing and using archives. While Ranade discusses many of these opportunities, I was surprised that she ignores what is probably the most disruptive digital archives of recent years—WikiLeaks. Surely in a book on archival futures something as significant as WikiLeaks, which arguably makes the access regimes of government archives completely redundant, deserves some consideration?

Australian records continuum thinking gets a guernsey in chapter 7 by Barbara Reed and others, ‘Multiple rights in records: the role of recordkeeping informatics’. Recordkeeping informatics is a model that pursues Bearman’s strategies for designing records systems from the ground up to meet an identified diversity of short and long-term needs for and rights in records. It combines analyses of information culture, business processes, and access needs and it is all made possible with metadata. The model is illustrated using a hypothetical case study of recordkeeping for childhood out-of-home care. Reed et al point to recent scandals and commissions of inquiry in Australia that have highlighted the tragic deficiencies in legacy recordkeeping for such situations. The case for pursuing a recordkeeping informatics approach is strong—at least in the case of such disadvantaged children. But our ability to pursue such approaches in other situations and contexts will inevitably be constrained by the host organization’s willingness to empower the subjects of the records. Where control and power are at stake in the design of records systems (and they always are), we have to engage at the political level to ensure that the rights of subjects are protected and enabled in the design of such systems. Some of those battles we will win, many we will lose—but we have to try. Having a good model like recordkeeping informatics is essential, but it is worthless unless we have the fortitude to join the fight for the rights of subjects from the outset, not thirty years after the fact.

In chapter 8, ‘The accidental archive’, Michael Moss and David Thomas provide an entertaining essay arguing that, regardless of what Brewster Kahle might think, the internet cannot be archived because it is itself an archives. Moreover, all of our archival efforts are now being captured in the “archives” that is the internet. The focus of Moss and Thomas is metaphysical, with the unfortunate Kahle merely being a patsy for their broader thesis, which is about the ontology of the archives. In their ontology, archives are free, organic, temporal, contingent, permeable and in a constant state of metamorphosis; not closed, absolute, privileged and fixed.

The final chapter 9, ‘The end of archival ideas?’, is the most intriguing. Craig Gauld asks, have we reached a point in our collective journey where we are at the end of archival ideas? He portrays the era from the 1980s through the early 2000s as the archival age of ideas. This was the time when the established (and somewhat boring and predictable) craft of archival management was both unsettled and turbo-charged with hefty doses of theory, from postmodernism through post-custodialism and continuum theory to an explicit concern for social justice. What was once radical and confronting is now accepted orthodoxy (“cosy consensus” he calls it on p. 142), with the past decade or so seeing a noticeable thinning of new critical theoretical ideas. Despite the much larger number of graduates from archival programs, where he asks are the new Terry Cooks, Verne Harris’s, Jeanette Bastians, Eric Ketelaars, Tom Nesmiths, Sue McKemmish’s, and Randall Jimersons? According to Gauld we have reached “peak theory” (p. 147).

Despite what one might think, this is not the hand-wringing of a member of an older generation despairing at the frivolities and shortcomings of the youth of today. The world has moved on and consolidating and implementing the earlier theoretical advances is where today’s archivists choose, for very good reasons, to devote their energies. One cannot expect to live in a state of constant epistemological flux. Gauld cannot resist worrying whether we have stopped thinking, because “knowing has more immediate value” (p. 144). But he acknowledges that the workplace reality of today’s archivists is one where funders dictate that “the market language of use and efficiencies is key whilst an ethos of managerialism strips the ethical and moral away from public services” (p. 145).

Epistemological flux is a luxury (perhaps a necessity) that we can afford when archival services are on an upwards growth curve. But when the very existence of one’s program is under threat from funding cuts and managerialism, then a better approach is probably to stop agonizing about theory and instead put one’s energies into articulating and advocating for higher purposes and deploying methods that are appropriate to new and emerging circumstances in order to achieve concrete goals. It is somewhat ironic that a book on archival futures concludes with an argument that to survive it has become necessary to minimise the kind of naval gazing and refiguring that the rest of the book rejoices in. “Keep calm and carry on” seems to be the overall message. Even if you are one of those archivists who prefers to “keep calm and carry on,” you will enjoy and benefit from taking the time to read this small, but highly stimulating book.

Inevitably in a book such as this, there are silences and omissions. The shift of archival endeavour away from big and powerful governments towards more grassroots, community-level archiving barely rates a mention. Absent also, are views from beyond North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. Where are the authors from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific Islands? Even continental Europe is missing! Perhaps a volume two will be in order once some of the crystal ball gazing in this volume proves, as is probable, to be wide of the mark?

Archival Futures is available from Facet Publishing


[1] David Bearman, “Archival Strategies,” The American Archivist 58, no. 4 (Fall 1995): 380-413.

[2] International Organization for Standardization, ISO 15489:2016 Information and documentation — Records management — Part 1: Concepts and principles; ISO TR 21946:2018 Information and documentation – Appraisal for managing records (Geneva: International Organization for Standardization, 2018).

[3] David Bearman, Archival Methods (Pittsburgh: Archives and Museum Informatics, 1989).

[4] David Bearman, “Documenting documentation,” Archivaria 34 (Summer 1992): 33-49.

[5] International Council on Archives, web page for resources on ‘Records in Contexts’ conceptual model, https://www.ica.org/en/egad-ric-conceptual-model

About Cassie Findlay

Digital recordkeeping, archives and privacy professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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