It was a Twitter explosion in August this year, as people from all over the world participated in the International Council on Archives Congress in Brisbane. The Archives’ social media guru Tara Nichols was on the ground, and explains how the Congress unfolded in Brisbane and on social media.
Three days. More than 1000 archiving professionals. Over 5000 tweets.
It may be hard to believe. But over three days in August this year, the topic of ‘archives’, led by the Archives via the Twitter hashtag #ICA_2012, actually trended on Twitter.
With an average of more than 120 tweets an hour during sessions from the beginning to the end of the Congress, the Twittersphere was truly abuzz.
And there was plenty to tweet about. With a mix that included a former MI5 head, a controversial former Spanish judge and representatives of archives from all over the world, the conversation flowed – from humorous archives-related ‘memes’ to serious conversations about the enduring value and role of archives.
The Congress begins
The buzz began with a thrilling opening ceremony, with a surprise performance by the Bangarra Dance Company. Heartfelt renditions of ‘I still call Australia home’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ by the Voices of Birralee Youth Choir led one delegate, ‘Mike Jones from Melbourne’, to tweet: ‘Hoping the #ICA_2012 opening ceremony concludes with a performance by AC/DC.’ It didn’t, of course, but the audience was impressed nonetheless.
Then, it was on to the serious business of archives as keynote, plenary and parallel sessions began. The Archives (@naagovau on Twitter) had staff tweeting ‘on the ground’ from different sessions, to encourage discussion and give those not at the Congress an insight into what was happening.
Delegates were impressed as David S Ferriero, 10th Archivist of the United States, revealed that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has more than 900 staff actively using social media to share the US National Archives’ collections with the public.
One of the most thought-provoking sessions was Ole Gausdal’s presentation on how the National Archives of Norway played an active role in national healing after the July 2011 terror attacks in Norway, by archiving not only government materials related to the incident, but also private responses in the form of letters, gifts and memorials.
WikiLeaks, human rights and enriching digital experience
Day 2 saw one of the most tweeted sessions of the Congress as Dame Stella Rimington took to the stage. It was fascinating to hear about her ‘perfect career’ trajectory from an archivist to a spy (as ex-head of MI5), and now to novelist. She explained that she chose a career as an archivist in the 1950s because it sounded ‘mysterious’: so mysterious, in fact, that many people didn’t know what an archivist was, even curiously confusing her work as an ‘archivist’ with ‘anchovy’. Her comment that ‘archivists make good spies’ was widely tweeted.
Dame Stella entered controversial territory when she revealed in no uncertain terms that she did not agree with WikiLeaks’ wholesale leaking of secret information. Her main concern was that rather than making information more open, incidents like WikiLeaks could mean more information will remain protected and not be released to the public.
Another popular session was Mitchell Whitelaw’s presentation on how important digital interfaces are to help people use and engage with archive collections. He stressed that it’s not enough to just provide a search box anymore – users expect rich, engaging digital experiences. It had everyone asking: how can archives meet that expectation?
The other major highlight of the Congress, of course, was the much-anticipated address by controversial former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón Real on the crucial role of archives in protecting human rights. His presentation was delivered in Spanish (translated into several languages for the benefit of non-Spanish speakers via special headsets), but it was clearly impassioned. He argued that ‘people have a right to the truth’, and that archives are essential complements to truth, justice and reparation. He boldly stated that making the truth known through government records can prevent future violations of human rights, drawing on examples where archives have served as evidence in some of the biggest legal trials in history. As reported on Twitter: ‘Archives are heritage of humanity’.
The archivist’s mission
Martin Berendse, President of the International Council on Archives, summed up the key themes of the Congress best at the closing ceremony:
‘It is time for archivists to become aware of changes in society. Our mission is to share!’
And if the social media response to #ICA_2012 is anything to go by, archivists the world over are well on board with that mission.