18 Dec 2019

The Enduring Need for Archives

Joe Peakin is a medical librarian who has worked in a wide range of both public and private libraries, usually involved in cataloguing or acquisitions.

I was recently asked by a friend, who is a lecturer in the School of Law and Government in DCU, about the archiving of a special collection.  He was curious about the cost and time that can go into making a large, diverse collection searchable and presentable to interested parties. Having not worked strictly as an archivist, but having been somewhat of a career cataloguer to this point, I asked for a bit more information on the project.  With a bit more clarity, I was able to clear up (hopefully!) a bit of the mystique behind such a task and the challenges or pitfalls that it would face.  However, what stuck with me about this conversation was the importance of the project itself and, as a result, the vital nature of archives and libraries in the current climate.

He and other academics and survivors of residential institutions have been petitioning the government to immediately withdraw the Retention of Records Bill 2019. The Bill itself sets out to seal for a period of 75 years all records currently contained in the archives of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan commission), and the Residential Institutions Redress Board and Review Committee. They are fighting to have transparency of information for all survivors of abuse and asking the government to pro-actively engage with survivors concerning the information held and the way that the records are treated.  

This issue is obviously a highly sensitive matter, any decision needs to take into account the wishes and feelings of survivors and those whose testimonies are involved, and hopefully this is what the government will decide to do in this matter.  What jumps out as the one inarguable tenet of the whole issue though is the significance of the records themselves and the need to ensure that the archival information is maintained and available if needed.  

Whether the government moves ahead with plans to seal the records for multiple generations or listens to the opposing groups, what does need to happen is in-depth archival work to ensure that the records themselves are not lost forever.  It would be easy to see a 75-year embargo on the records as an excuse to leave the collection unmanned and untouched but this kind ofdocumentation is the exact type of information we need to cling to as a society these days.  A growing flexibility of fact is an issue that has never been more prevalent than it is today, with some of the world’s leading figures resorting to it almost daily. However, one of the main ways that we can engage this denial of absolutes is to attempt to counter it with unquestionable documentation.  

The job of an archivist, cataloguer or librarian in general is that of the retention and presentation of information.  The information itself is what is important.  Librarians can show people how to find what they are looking for but there should be an unbiased approach to both how we catalogue and how we present it.  In a case such as this one, where there seems to be a move towards the suppression of important documentation for whatever reason, we as a community should be moving to oppose it.  Thankfully, I was hugely heartened to see that this was the case as Twenty prominent archivists and information professionals at some of Ireland's main universities have called for “the full and immediate withdrawal” of legislation seeking to seal millions of child abuse records for 75 years.” It is so encouraging to see some of the leading information professionals take on causes such as this and show that the societal need for our profession should be growing in the face of the exponential growth in information sources and the lessening impact of absolute fact.
So, to summarise and indirectly answer my friend’s question, an archival project such as this would be a huge one due to the volume, variety and sensitivity of the information. However, it is also the kind of project that the library and archive community absolutely should be ensuring is undertaken and also given the focus and gravity it is so deserving of.