Director-General's review of 2016-17

National Archives of Australia
National Archives of Australia Advisory Council
Annual Report 2016–17

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

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

Right now we are living in the digital information society. In many ways, information itself has become our nation's lifeblood, flowing through and impacting every aspect of our lives, underpinning our basic individual human rights, our economic prosperity and our national security.

As Australian citizens we expect access to justice; we expect our rights and entitlements to be both recognised and protected; we expect to be enfranchised in our system of democracy and able to access our cultural heritage; we expect our public institutions to be robust, efficient, accountable and free of corruption and open to the scrutiny of the people they serve.

All of these expectations, particularly in the digital age, are secured by open and transparent access to government information. This information must be complete, accurate, authentic and, most importantly, publicly accessible. Of course, release of information cannot be irresponsible or reckless. Proper stewardship is essential to preserve personal privacy, confidentiality and security.

The National Archives' role remains clear: to ensure that the essential records of government are secured, and remain accessible and reusable into the future, unlocking Australia's history and supporting the digital economy. We are delivering on this mission now through our operational, business and user-engagement strategies that are engineered for the digital age.

Information management

The centrepiece of our digital-age strategies is the Digital Continuity 2020 Policy, launched in October 2015. The policy advances strong governance frameworks to ensure that information is properly valued and managed. It makes sure that government agencies have the right governance arrangements for information, just as they do for other assets they manage.

In April 2017 I launched the latest in our suite of tools, the Information Management Standard, with simple, clear principles that unify information management requirements for all agencies of the Commonwealth Government. In keeping with our government's direction to reduce red tape, none of this demands capital expenditure or the diversion of resources. It features commonsense statements of the practices, behaviours and values that need to be integrated into corporate governance frameworks to achieve consistent information management across the Commonwealth Government.

The importance of the standard in helping manage the government's growing business information has been acknowledged by the information sector, with the Archives receiving an OpenGov Recognition of Excellence award. We hosted the launch of and promoted Information Awareness Month and announced the winners of the Archives' 2017 Digital Excellence Awards which acknowledge both excellence and innovation within government agencies.

In our region, the Archives continued to provide leadership, contributing to capacity building through the Pacific Regional Branch of the International Council on Archives (PARBICA). In September 2016 we were awarded a grant from the ICA's Programme Commission (PCOM) to manage the development of new modules for the highly successful Recordkeeping for Good Governance Toolkit. They will provide practical advice on protecting irreplaceable documentary heritage following disasters.

Collaboration and engagement

Once again, we delivered an innovative public engagement program, designed to deliver richer public services and program experiences. It included collaborative projects, new digital initiatives, and our continuing commitment to access for communities in rural and regional Australia, through our touring exhibition program.

On Australia Day 2017, the National Archives launched a selection of curated collection content on the Google Arts & Culture (Cultural Institute) platform. This platform makes our collection more accessible to new global audiences. Initially, we have exhibited digital images from past exhibitions: Design 29: Creating a Capital; Beacons by the Sea; Strike a Pose; Summers Past; Max Dupain on Assignment; and Banned.

As part of our continuing WWI commemoration program, we were pleased to show Monash University's One Hundred Stories for Anzac Day 2017 in Arcade, our new life-long learning space. It was accompanied by the musical score, Villers-Bretonneux, by Australian composer Mary Finsterer. The project, led by Professor Bruce Scates, is a moving digital presentation of short and powerful videos, drawing on personal and Archives' collections that reveal the untold stories of the impact of war on men and women who served during World War I.

Our national exhibition touring program was well patronised around the country, with three exhibitions hosted in rural and regional galleries: Without Consent: Australia's past adoption practices and our two immigration exhibitions, A Place to Call Home? Migrant hostel memories and A Ticket to Paradise? Our immigration program was further enriched, with the re-launch of our popular immigration website, Destination: Australia. It can now host and connect to new immigration collections and capture individual crowd-sourced migration stories.

We were privileged to host His Majesty King Willem-Alexander and Her Majesty Queen Máxima of the Netherlands at the National Archives in November 2016. Australia and the Netherlands celebrated 400 years of contact in 2016, a connection that began with explorers such as Dirk Hartog and Abel Tasman. Today there are close to 95,000 residents who were born in the Netherlands and an estimated 300,000 Australians who claim Dutch ancestry. During their visit, the royal couple had the opportunity to view several significant records that highlight the shared history between Australia and the Netherlands.

On the international stage, we have also been active, reaching agreement with the National Archives of Japan, to return to Japan many thousands of company trading records that were seized during World War II. About 3,300 boxes of documents – created by Japanese companies at branches in Australia between 1899 and 1941 – were transferred from the Controller of Enemy Property to the custody of the Archives in the 1950s. They provide a fascinating insight into the personal and business lives of the Japanese living in Australia at the time. This will be the largest donation of its kind accepted by the National Archives of Japan, a symbol of the highly valued and ongoing friendship and collaboration between Australia and Japan.

Indigenous Australians

On 9 July 2016, we began a year-long program of activities pertinent to the national discussion about recognition of Australia's First Peoples, with the Archives' annual Constitution Day Speakers Forum and family activities. Stan Grant and Shireen Morris, along with Paul Barclay from ABC Radio National's Big Ideas, discussed the topic of Indigenous Recognition and Australia's Identity – Why is it Important? Activities included Indigenous storytelling, dance and didgeridoo (didjeridu) performances, tours with 'Queen Victoria' and facilitated interpretation of the Federation Gallery and the Larrakia petition.

In addition to new video and school learning resources on our Discovering Anzacs website – exploring the military service of Indigenous people – the Archives was also proud to launch our first fully digital exhibition experience in March 2017, Facing Two Fronts: the fight for respect. It explores the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military service and the fight for social justice. Service people and their families shared their stories through a series of video portraits, illustrated with digitised records from the National Archives' collection. This exhibition was complemented by Indigenous Australians at War from the Boer War to the Present, the first exhibition from the Shrine of Remembrance to tour Canberra. Both exhibitions were part of the Archives' commemoration program for the anniversaries of the 1967 Referendum and the Mabo High Court decision.

Facing Two Fronts will tour to Darwin, opening in August 2017, in the new public access space at the Northern Territory Archives Centre, complemented by original items from both the National Archives and the Northern Territory Archives Service collections. Looking ahead, it will also be installed in the new Sir John Monash Centre, Villers-Bretonneux, in late 2018, in time for the centenary commemoration of the Armistice.

In June, we adopted an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy designed to ensure the Archives can more effectively engage and connect with Indigenous Australians. It includes acknowledging the historical and cultural context of records, strengthening engagement, consultation and collaboration with, as well as inclusion of, voices, stories and perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our programs.

Preservation of Australia's memory

The Archives has achieved many significant milestones in preserving Australia's documentary heritage for future generations. The Attorney-General Senator the Hon George Brandis QC officially opened the new National Archives Preservation Facility in Canberra on 9 June – International Archives Day. The official opening marked the culmination of many years of planning and preparation, to relocate some 25 per cent of the national collection, or more than 15 million records, into the contemporary, environmentally controlled, storage and preservation facility.

An esteemed group of international archivists travelled to Canberra to attend the official opening and participated in an international symposium on 8 June. The symposium included presentations from the national archivists of the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, Kenya, New Zealand and France on topics of 'Global perspectives on documentary heritage' and 'Influencing government information policy'.

Building on the successful opening of the new preservation facility, the refurbishment of the Archives' Mitchell repository is proceeding, following endorsement by the Finance Minister under the new lease endorsement process, and approval of the fitout component by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. This project is the final part of the storage strategy approved by the government and will provide growth space for transfers from agencies to 2031, based on current projections.

During this financial year, the Archives also made a strategic investment of $3.4 million to save 24,600 hours of our cultural, scientific and political history on magnetic tape, for future generations. Much of the cultural history of the 20th century was captured on magnetic tape. Due to the high rate of deterioration of magnetic tape and the obsolescence of the playback machinery, much of this material is expected to be inaccessible by 2025. Some 43,000 audio and video tapes in the collection were digitised covering a diverse range of content produced and held by federal agencies in Australia, now accessible for generations to come.

Public access

In this last year, I commissioned Paul O'Sullivan AO CNZM to undertake a review into the Archives' access examination process. In response to his recommendations, we have taken steps to strengthen the integrity of the process and to ensure that as much as possible is released in a timely way, while complying with the exemptions in the Archives Act 1983 that protect personal privacy, confidentiality and national security.

Key points made in the review included reframing the Archives' role in the proactive release of material, a move towards increased digitisation of records, and addressing limitations in the technological links with agencies. A reference group will oversee the implementation of these recommendations, which will provide a more sustainable model for the release of records into the future.

The Archives has also adopted a new Reference Strategy, designed to further facilitate meaningful, timely and equitable access to the Archives' collection by Australian and international users. We will broaden our outreach programs to increase the Archives' public profile, relevance and accessibility. By seeking new opportunities and investigating new ways to present researcher orientation programs, the Archives will reach new audiences and assist users on the best ways to discover, research and access the collection.

Along with other national cultural institutions, during UN Week 2016, we helped to promote the importance and improve understanding of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, highlighting their relevance to the fundamental role of Archives around the world in preserving and providing access to government information.

Looking forward

The Archives has invested significant effort in reviewing its human, financial and capital resources to ensure the organisation is dynamic, agile and best positioned to deliver on our role as a leader in shaping the digital future of government information management. Our new corporate organisational model and forward corporate planning are firmly focused on meeting the digital challenges of the information society.

As the Archives implements its planned reorganisation in line with gradual downsizing, we continue to focus on prioritising work and resources, and rationalising and improving services, with every endeavour seeking to maximise value and user experience.

In a tightening fiscal environment, our digitise-on-demand service was no longer sustainable, as our fees to copy records digitally were well short of the actual cost incurred. Consequently, a comprehensive revision of fees has been introduced, while access to the original record is still provided at no charge.

We continue to see that the Australian community's preferred method of access to the Archives is via online services, which clearly underscores the imperative to invest in and enhance our digital capability. As government creates more information in digital form and we see continued growth in demand for services via digital channels, it has become urgent for the Archives to build its digital capability.

We need to do this, so that the Archives is able to ingest, secure and preserve, as well as make discoverable – in meaningful and useful formats – the records and information of government into the future. It is important, in doing so, that we safeguard the memory of our nation against cyber threats.

Our ICT resources currently fall well short of this objective – with digital challenges for the Archives still very much in the forefront.

Signature of David Fricker

David Fricker