Archive races against time to save the past

National Archives’ director-general, David Fricker… “Imagine how you would be if you lose your memories.” Photo by DANIELLE NOHRA

THE clock is ticking, and fast, before the National Archives of Australia loses not only up to 200,000 video and audio files but part of Australia’s identity.

“Imagine how you would be if you lose your memories,” says the National Archives of Australia’s director-general, David Fricker.

“How sad is it when you see someone who’s had a rich and diverse life suffer dementia?

“What a personal tragedy!

“Imagine that on a national scale.”

The NAA has about seven years to digitise its audio and video files before some are lost for good, losing with them, as David says, part of Australia’s memory.

“The international consensus is that by 2025 any audio visual material, which is still on magnetic tape, will be unreadable,” he says.

“And that’s because the technology won’t be available to replay it and the old technology that we still have won’t be maintained because of lack of parts and people skilled in maintaining it will be retired or they would have passed away.”

And finally, David says the magnetic tape itself will deteriorate.

Paper documents will remain safe in the NAA building 1000 years from now, but what is of critical concern is the audio and visual files.

“Preserving paper documents is relatively easy because we can still look at them and read them,” he says.

“The real challenge is magnetic media such as audio and video files that won’t last forever, so we need to get the content off them.”

Photographic negatives also need special treatment and media such as CDs and Blu-ray will deteriorate.

“Right now the technology of choice is to digitise it all,” he says.

“We want to rescue that material into digital format to carry that information through to future generations of technology.”

The NAA, which is best described as the memory of the nation, collects and preserves Australian government records that reflect the country’s history and identity.

It has more than four million items.

“[But] we are going to lose some of Australia’s memories, which are stored on magnetic tape,” David says.

“It would be a tragedy because most significant parts of the 20th century have been captured on and recorded on magnetic media.

“We have recorded our cultural identity and the idea we would lose that is a real tragedy.”

David says losing part of Australia’s identity could make the country less competent about who it is and it could change its resilient, inclusive and harmonious society.

“Australia, as a middle power in the world, will have less competence as it moves into its future,” he says.

“We need to prioritise Australia’s cultural prosperity at the same level that we prioritise our economic prosperity.

“Because you can be the richest nation in the world, with full employment and expensive cars, but if you have no national identity, then you have nothing to live for.”

One example of files in danger are videos and audio recordings of indigenous culture and the sounds of indigenous languages.

David says these files capture the performance of ceremonies, music, dress and indigenous traditions.

“It’s only relatively recently that Australia has woken up to the immense value of that part of our heritage,” he says.

“And it’s unbearable to think that that part of our culture will be lost. We need to take action.”

Currently NAA is making “massive” investments in its digital capability to give itself the technology it needs to save these files.

“We’re looking at better ways of engaging the Australian public with our collection to make sure all Australians appreciate the values of our collection and have a way of engaging with it,” David says.

“We’re working hard across government to make sure in today’s digital world that records are being secured.

“Because in the digital world, digital data can disappear quicker than it’s created.

“The estimated cost of digitising just the remaining video tapes in our collection is around $14 million; and we would need to complete the work by 2025, ie $2 million per year over a seven-year period.

“This is beyond our current budget, so we certainly will be looking for additional sources of funds in the coming years, including from non-government sources if possible.”

David says the National Archives also needs to work very hard to promote itself as a public interest and make it as easy as possible for every Australian to access its files.

Then, he says, people can interpret for themselves the authenticity of records in the archives, which constitute the memory of the nation.

“We need better online channels as well as public space (which includes its own building) in the nation’s capital to really showcase the nation’s memory,” he says.

“Every society needs an authentic, reliable knowledge of its own past so then it can make a balanced and informed decision of its future.”

More information on the NAA at naa.gov.au

 

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