Director-General's review of 2015-16

National Archives of Australia and National Archives of Australia Advisory Council Annual Report 2015-16

David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia

David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia

This is a time of great innovation and transformation for the National Archives of Australia. Every aspect of our operations and business is undergoing profound change as a result of the digital revolution. During 2015–16 we embraced the challenges of the digital environment and the opportunities it presents to improve our business processes and service delivery.

Information management

The Archives is in the information business – a concept that fundamentally revolves around the aggregation, preservation and access of the national archival collection. With an eye always to the future, we therefore play a critical role in how information across the Australian Government is created and managed. During the year I was pleased to see the Archives continue to provide leadership and direction in this arena, and establish standards for the creation and handling of information by all Australian Government entities.

In October 2015 the Secretary for the Department of Finance Jane Halton AO, PSM launched the Archives’ Digital Continuity 2020 policy. This policy builds on the success of the Digital Transition policy, and supports the integration of digital information management into all government business processes. Entities need to manage their information as a business asset – indeed, a national asset – and to keep it in an accessible digital form for as long as it is required. The staged implementation of Digital Continuity 2020 will require the Archives to monitor and guide entities over the next four years as we work towards this goal.

The challenges are many, but I’m pleased to report that good progress is being made. In May, the New South Wales Information Commissioner Ms Elizabeth Tydd presented the 2016 National Archives Awards for Digital Excellence. These awards recognise and celebrate excellence in the management, use and re-use of digital information by Australian Government entities. The winner of the large entity category, the Australian National University, was recognised for its integration of digital business processes with its electronic records management system. The National Blood Authority, winner of the small agency category, impressed the judges with its patient interface into the Australian Bleeding Disorders Registry. A commendation was also awarded to NBN Co. Limited for its employee-centric approach to its electronic document records management system.

The Archives builds digital information and records management capability across the Australian Government through a variety of online and face-to-face forums. I am proud to report a 98 per cent user satisfaction rating with these services during the year.

Collection management

About 5 per cent of government records are of sufficient importance to be transferred into the national archival collection for permanent preservation, based on cultural, scientific and historical significance. As Australia continues to develop its digital economy, we are also recognising the latent economic benefits that may flow from the future re-use of many government records. Without sound management of the collection, including digitisation, many of our historical government records will not be in a ready state or available for these opportunities, or may simply disappear.

This means we need to continue to preserve and manage the existing analogue collection (paper, photographic, film and audiovisual), while adapting our systems and processes to accommodate information created in digital formats. At the end of June 2016 the Archives held 353.6 shelf kilometres of paper and other analogue records, and 721.1 terabytes of digital records.

Construction of the National Archives Preservation Facility (NAPF) in Canberra commenced during the year, which will allow us to continue to meet our obligation to store and preserve government archival records into the future. This exciting project is a 17,000 square metre purpose-designed facility to provide stable, environmentally controlled storage for 104 shelf kilometres of paper records and 9.4 shelf kilometres of audiovisual records. The facility will also feature purpose-built workspaces for conservation and digitisation, and will house 150 staff. It will be ready for occupation in mid-2017. During 2015–16 meticulous planning continued for the move to the facility, including arrangements to relocate 15 million records – a huge logistical undertaking.

The year 2015–16 also saw the upgrade of our Chester Hill repository in Sydney. The repository now provides temperature and humidity-controlled storage for 25 shelf kilometres of paper records and eight shelf kilometres of audiovisual material. The fit-for-purpose conditions will ensure that records at risk of deterioration, such as photographic and some audiovisual formats, will survive for a further 375 years. I am pleased to report that this construction project was completed under budget and ahead of schedule.

Records at risk: Deadline 2025

Unfortunately, storage conditions alone are not enough to guarantee future accessibility of all formats. The Archives holds nearly 800,000 audiovisual records, comprising a diverse range of film, video and audio content dating back to the early 1900s. These records are in both physical and digital formats, and many are subject to rapid deterioration and format obsolescence.

In particular, audiovisual material recorded on magnetic media may well be inaccessible beyond 2025 unless we intervene with a program of digital preservation. In light of this, the Archives has commenced working with the National Film and Sound Archive and other collecting institutions to implement a collaborative approach to preserving our national film and sound heritage.


Public demand for access continues to rise and we are working to transform and accelerate our service channels, making more and more records searchable and deliverable digitally. During the year we continued to exploit emerging technologies to improve service delivery and maximise the public’s engagement with the collection.

The results speak for themselves. During this reporting period the Archives’ websites received nearly 4.7 million visits and more than 36.1 million page views. Nearly 10.6 million records were accessed through RecordSearch, the Archives’ online collection database. We have continued to digitise our collection, adding more than 14.4 million record pages for online retrieval. The number of digitised pages on RecordSearch now numbers more than a staggering 42.5 million (a 59 per cent increase over the last two years).

During the year we completed a major project – named Project Albany – to preserve, describe and digitise selected repatriation records of returned service personnel who departed for World War I from Albany, Western Australia, in November 1914. With the collaboration of volunteers and university students, approximately 257,000 records were described and added to RecordSearch. In addition, 5000 of these files were digitised and added to RecordSearch.

The Archives continued to facilitate public access to the collection through crowdsourcing, inviting the public to add to the description and transcription of tens of thousands of records. In addition, listings of records held by the Archives (consignment lists) were transcribed by the public and added to RecordSearch.

During the year we made progress in addressing the backlog of access examination requests. Significant resources were committed to address the number of applications submitted prior to October 2013. As a result, records relating to 1084 applications were released, and the backlog was reduced.

In all, the Archives released nearly 134,500 records for public access without exemptions. A total of 5528 records, or 4 per cent, were partially or completely exempted from public access due to restrictions under the Archives Act 1983. While this is a good result in terms of the quantum of records released, it still falls short of public demand and the issue of access examination will continue to be a pressure point for the Archives for the foreseeable future.

Along with digital channels, the Archives continues to engage with the public through exhibitions, events, and education and outreach programs. Nearly half a million people visited the Archives during the year – at the National Office in Canberra or one of our reading rooms in every capital city, or through our touring exhibitions or engagement with archival material from the collection on loan to other cultural institutions across Australia. I am proud to report that 93 per cent of visitors were satisfied with their experience.

Once again, the annual release of Cabinet records was a significant event for the Archives. On 1 January 2016, key 1990 and 1991 Cabinet records from the Hawke government were released for public access following an embargoed release to the media in December 2015. Former Prime Minister the Hon Bob Hawke AC and Archives Cabinet historian Dr Nicholas Brown addressed the media briefing and both gave a number of interviews, which were broadcast once the embargo was lifted on 1 January 2016. Media coverage of the release was extensive – reaching an estimated cumulative audience of more than 32 million people.

During 2015–16 the Archives continued to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to access records in the collection. We launched a revised edition of Tracking Family: a guide to Aboriginal records relating to the Northern Territory in July 2015. This guide assists Aboriginal people to locate and access records to help them link up with their families and communities. The National Archives and the Public Record Office Victoria received an Australian Society of Archivists Mander Jones Award for the co-publication walata tyamateetj: a guide to government records about Aboriginal people in Victoria. This guide helps Victorian Aboriginal people find records about their family and country.

International collaboration

The Archives maintained its significant standing in the international archival community, with leadership roles and active participation in the International Council on Archives (particularly its Pacific Regional Branch), the Council of Australasian Archives and Records Authorities, the South East Asia-Pacific Audio Visual Archive Association, International Conference in Digital Preservation and the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. Close collaboration continued with the national archival institutions of Indonesia, France and Fiji, and we were honoured to host visiting delegations from Japan, Indonesia, Fiji and Hong Kong.

In September 2015 an Archives senior conservator spent time at the National Archives of Fiji, providing training to staff in the conservation of photographic prints, negatives and digital images and some general paper conservation training. In May 2016 two senior conservators travelled to the Office of the City Historian in Havana, Cuba, to provide restoration expertise and deliver staff training in the treatment and preservation of iron gall ink documents that date from 1550 to 1661.

Looking forward

It is exciting to be part of the Archives as it looks to redefine its role as a leader in shaping the digital future, capitalising on its intellectual property and establishing an internal digital culture and workforce. We will ensure that for all outcomes, outputs and services the Archives’ default position is digital, supported by appropriate processes and technology. Undergoing such substantial transformation will further cement our role at the forefront of the digital arena.

A highlight of the year ahead will undoubtedly be the opening of the NAPF in Canberra, now in the final stages of construction. This contemporary, environmentally sound facility will ensure the storage and preservation of a massive 15 million records.

Efforts to grow public interaction with the collection will continue throughout the year. Significant enhancements to our web presence are planned, along with programs and services that are increasingly delivered online. I eagerly await the openings of our new exhibitions focusing on the war service of Indigenous Australians and the history of Australia’s intelligence agencies.

Lastly, we will continue to provide leadership on information management to the Australian Government. This includes guidance and support for entities in implementing the Digital Transition and Digital Continuity 2020 policies, which support efficiency, innovation, interoperability, information use and re-use, and accountability.

Signature of David Fricker

David Fricker