National Archives of Australia

Issue 8 October 2012

There’s no such thing as the paperless office … or is there?

How we straddle two worlds – the physical and the digital – is at the forefront of thinking at the National Archives. At the recent International Council on Archives Congress in Brisbane, Director-General David Fricker shared his vision for the Archives in ‘a climate of change’. Melanie Harwood presents the brave new world of archives.

I’m old enough to remember the trepidation in the office when the PC appeared on our desks. The digital record was treated warily, and the ‘digital space’ where the record was created and stored engendered mistrust. I felt the illusiveness of each record as I pressed ‘send’ on an email or ‘save’ on a document. Possibly born from too many lost university assignments, my habit of vigilantly printing, saving and re-saving had begun.

While the futurists were touting an impending ‘paperless office’, the piles of paper in my workplaces grew. Alongside the predictions of endless leisure time (computers would do all the work) and a ‘total automation’ of services (computers would magically link everything together seamlessly), I came to believe that the paperless office was a myth.

Xerox 914 copier brochure, 1962. Office copiers and printers have contributed to the ‘tidal wave of paper’ in government agencies. NAA: B300/2, 9352

As I look around my desk, it is clear that I haven’t fully embraced the paperless office. I still have plastic in-trays and out-trays, files and folders, booklets and brochures. Most of these records were created digitally and are securely filed in an electronic recordkeeping system – so why all the paper? Habits of a lifetime are hard to break.

A crossroad in history

At the International Council on Archives Congress recently held in Brisbane, David Fricker, Director-General of the Archives, shared his vision for the future. His ideas were carried worldwide – almost instantaneously – on Twitter, proving an immediate illustration of his opening statements:

‘”The record” is the concept at the heart of the Archives’ work. But even this most fundamental concept is being turned on its head by our digital society.’

‘The record is the “thing” that provides evidence of business activity’, he explained. ‘It exists in a virtual space. It is the information, the knowledge, or the experience – but it is not the medium that carries it.’

An email, a tweet, a voicemail, a website – all may be ‘a record’.

David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia, at the International Council on Archives Congress. Photographer: Ian Henderson

Mr Fricker spoke of a record as a ‘somewhat mercurial thing that maintains its identity but changes its form’.

‘In a way, we’re trying to preserve the song long after the singer has departed’, he said. ‘But can you separate the song from the singer? And is it the same song? Is it enough to preserve the music sheet, or is it the performance that matters?’

The ‘essential performance’, explained Mr Fricker, involves determining the characteristics that we must preserve for the record to maintain its meaning over time, such as the textual content, layout and metadata including author and date of creation.

‘We are at a crossroad in history’, he told the Congress. ‘We need your fresh eyes and new innovations to make our vision a reality.’

A tidal wave of paper

Fresh thinking about these complex issues is necessary if we are to avoid being swamped by a wave of paper records, while the tide of digital information washes in. At the Archives, the paperless office has to become reality.

With paper records storage by Australian Government agencies costing more than $220 million each year, the Archives needs to limit the creation of new paper records, and is doing so through the Digital Transition Policy. A survey conducted by the Archives in 2010 showed that, by 2014, agencies expect to create more than 10.7 million gigabytes of electronic records.

The need to limit the creation of paper records was easily demonstrated during a recent tour of the Archives’ Mitchell repository in Canberra by Simon Crean, the Minister responsible for the Archives. While the repository holds hundreds of kilometres of paper records – enough shelf kilometres to line the road from Canberra to Sydney – the comparatively miniscule digital repository – around the size of a townhouse – already has the capacity to hold 10 times the amount of paper records stored on site.

An early digital agency – the CSIRO computer room in Canberra, 1964. NAA: A1200, L49204

Born digital records and digital natives

So it’s not surprising that the Archives will only accept ‘born digital’ records created after 2015 – that is, created using a computer or other digital device – in digital formats. This approach would seem absolutely logical to my ‘born digital’ nieces, nephews and certainly my young children, who were born into a digital world. They rarely print things out, comfortably read from a screen or device, and are quicker by keyboard than pen and paper.

But even as a ‘digital adoptee’, I certainly have the expectations of a digital world: I want my information where I want it, when I want it and how I want it! Most of us wouldn’t trade Google for a half-day trawl through a library catalogue or paper listing of records.

An important part of David Fricker’s vision for the future of archives is the seamless integration of processes and systems that the digital age allows. He sees the most valuable records of government being transferred to the Archives automatically as they are created, while government agencies can still use them for day-to-day business, and forecasts that a single search will deliver these records to the public.

In a crowded information marketplace, the Archives will play a unique role by providing access to the authentic record. ‘People expect to find answers in government records, to be able to trust those records, that they will be authentic and have integrity, and that they are easy to access’, said Mr Fricker.

The vision for the Archives is clear, but there’s lots of work to be done to make that vision a reality. It would seem that the Archives is breaking habits of a lifetime, and embracing the paperless office and a digital future.

Want more?

You can read David Fricker’s full speech

Watch David Fricker’s interview with the Flying Reporters at the International Council on Archives Congress

Read more about the government’s Digital Transition Policy

Find out about the Digital Continuity Plan for government agencies

One comment on "There’s no such thing as the paperless office … or is there?"

  1. Jean Main says:

    A happy dream! I can’t imagine that government departments and similar offices would be happy to have all that is created being received by any Archive while it is in fact being created!
    After all there is “comercial in confidence” or, shall we say, “government in confidence”. Governments of any persuasion don’t want everything out there for others to know, even archivists who may perhaps have previously been sworn to secrecy.

    However all the best in your endeavour.

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