Life on the shelf
By Agnès Bardon

June 19, 2001 - On the dusty shelves of the Labour Ministry, Fermin Bustarga, an obscure employee of the Archives, finds an envelope containing the last will and testament of the poet Saelices. This discovery leads the hero of "Le Naufrage des Archives" ("Shipwrecked in the Archives") (1) on a long odyssey among ancient manuscripts and forgotten dossiers. Like Luis Mateo Diez, the Spanish author of the novel, many other writers have chosen archives as the theme and background for their stories. Archives are a fertile terrain for the imagination, with their maze of corridors and secrets confided to paper. But, above all, they are an essential facet of the memory of a society, notably its practical memory, whether administrative, commercial or legal.

The need to keep a record of the minor and major acts of social life is not new. In Nineveh, capital of ancient Assyria, archaeological diggings at the Palace of Assurbanipal uncovered clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions from the 7th century B.C. - government decrees, court sentences and private contracts. The practice of conservation is indeed very ancient. The institution of archives, on the other hand, is relatively new, dating back barely two centuries. It was only from the 18th century in Europe that archives stopped being simple storerooms where outdated documents were kept. Gradually, these documents were recognized as having a direct bearing on history. Over the same period, public administration was becoming more efficient. The development of offical archives, in fact, is contemporary with the modernisation of the State in the Europe of the Enlightenment. Up until then, important papers were not necessarily destroyed, but each city, each university, each bishopric, kept its own archives. The archival revolution consisted of collecting these documents in a systematic manner, assembling and organising them to facilitate access - albeit with certain restrictions. Even today, archives classified as state secrets only become public after a prescribed period, that varies from country to country: 50 years in Norway and France, 100 in Belgium. France was, in 1789, one of the first states to open its archives to its citizens. The Vatican was the most recent - in 1881 - to follow suit. Each and every text produced by an administrative body could potentially end up in an archive. Generally though, administrative bodies save only 5% to 25% of the documents they produce. Before that, the first life of a document is determined by its administrative utility. It is only afterwards that it may become part of an archive. "Any document automatically destined for posterity will obviously be suspect," says Charles Kecskemeti, former Secretary General of the International Council of Archives (ICA). "When an automobile dealer writes out a receipt, it is to provide the buyer with proof that he owns the vehicle, not to inform his grand-children that their grandfather owned a Peugeot."

In a second phase, when the document becomes obsolete, it is stored, but it may still be useful in other ways. In the 1950s in France, for example, the authorities dug up old maps drawn by engineer Claude Chappe in the early 19th century when the telegraph was being installed. This made it possible to economize on new studies when a television network was being introduced. By bearing witness to its period, the document makes history, even if in sometimes unpredictable ways. "Fifty years ago, I was working on the history of a Hungarian village in the 19th century," said Charles Kecskemeti. "By looking at the losses of livestock due to foot-and-mouth disease in the village, we discovered that the number of animals infected was greater than the number of animals declared to the tax authorities. So, a century after the event, these documents said as much about the degree of tax fraud as about the epidemic itself." And, while certificates of birth, marriage, death and so on, are neutral in themselves, they also contain a wealth of information. These documents are normally intended to organise the life of citizens. But sometimes, they do just the opposite. Used for repressive purposes, they can become a dangerous arm in the hands of authoritarian powers, as was the case for European Jews during World War II.

Another challenge facing archives is conservation. Sound recordings, film, paper - all of the traditional media - are fragile. Subjected to external stresses, such as humidity, they are particularly vulnerable. For Joseph Zwicker, an official archivist for the Swiss Canton of Bale, "the principal enemy of paper is paper itself. The acidity of the solvants in paper ends up by eating away at it from the inside. This is why, after 60 years, newspapers begin to disintegrate." Since World War II, in the wake of destruction due to the conflict, many vital documents have been put onto micro-film. More recently, digital technologies are saving space, while offering a reliable medium. The only problem is cost: one dollar for a single page of digital data.

We must also make sure that future generations will be able to decipher the data contained in these new storage media. The problem is the same for the internet. How can we preserve a record of the huge quantity of information produced and exchanged on the web?

"With conventional media, you used to have to perform a deliberate act to destroy a document. In the case of the internet, it's just the reverse," said Zwicker. The very rapid obsolescence of both software and hardware, combined with the absence of a universal model for storing information, renders all attempts at conservation problematic. Yet, the accounts and records of any enterprise, along with tax returns, etc., will soon have only a virtual existence. Some trace of these records must, therefore, be preserved. This is why in September 2000, UNESCO proposed the creation of a world alliance of institutions, users and the private sector concerned, to safeguard this virtual memory. We can no longer wait before giving this matter some serious consideration. "So far," Charles Kecskemeti admits, "we have not found a response to this new challenge."

(1) Le Naufrage des Archives, Luis Mateo Diez. Flammarion, January 2001, 320 pp.

Agnès Bardon is journalist at UNESCO's Sources

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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