National Archives of Australia
National Archives of Australia Advisory Council
Annual Report 2017–18

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

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

Director-General's review of 2017–18

The information received and created by Australian Government entities in the course of their business activities constitutes the evidence of actions taken. Over time, it adds to and enriches the documentary heritage of the nation. As a national resource for knowledge creation and sharing, it underpins the accountability, transparency and integrity of our system of democracy and government. It forms an essential foundation for the cultural identity and prosperity of our nation.

In a time of information abundance, Australian society is at a critical juncture. New opportunities are emerging on the back of developments around big data, artificial intelligence and the ‘Internet of Things’. However, we must also confront the trends that may erode our national prospects – such as cyber threats, the influence of ‘fake news’, and a failing trust in public institutions.

In this globally connected digital world, the National Archives of Australia’s role in the integrity and accessibility of government information has never been more important. As the lead national agency for setting standards, guidelines and practices for information governance and records management, the National Archives is embracing the opportunities of the digital age.

Our transformative strategies address critical issues and priorities for securing, protecting, preserving and making accessible the records of government.

These include:

  • strengthening information governance and cybersecurity
  • prioritising digital preservation of at-risk records
  • improving business processes and service delivery across government
  • providing new ways for the community to connect with government information and cultural heritage.

Information policy that secures the record

The Digital Continuity 2020 Policy continues to define the Archives' work with government agencies, to ensure information is properly created, stored and preserved – and is available for use and reuse into the future. Since work commenced in this area in 2011 with the Digital Transition Policy, there has been significant progress by government agencies. Most recent evidence demonstrates continuing improvement in digital information management capability and commitment, with the majority of agencies reporting that 'the policy targets are in progress or completed'.

However, much work is needed to ensure that digital records, data and information on legacy platforms are not lost to digital obsolescence. Digital archive infrastructure that is cybersecure and better integrated into government business systems is essential to secure current and future government information. The challenge is real and ever present for the Archives and all government agencies.

In recognition of the fundamental importance of government information as critical national infrastructure and a community resource, the Archives continues to work with agencies on implementing the Information Management Standard launched in 2017. It provides simple and clear principles, and implementation pathways to assist the digital transformation of agencies – towards a digital 'business as usual' and strengthened corporate governance frameworks for consistent information management across the Australian Government.

The Archives also strives to be an exemplar in information governance practice. To this end, in the past year, we established the role of Chief Information Governance Officer (CIGO). This position, in the Archives, is championing the importance of effective information management. It is responsible for continuous improvement to agency-wide information governance and for fostering a culture of accountable and business-focused management of information assets.

The importance of information awareness extends beyond government – impacting the lives of Australians in all aspects of daily life. This is why the Archives again embraced the opportunity of Information Awareness Month – a collaborative event held in May, between various bodies within the records, archives, library, knowledge, information and data management communities – to increase awareness of the role and use of information. The Archives also announced the annual winners of our 2018 Digital Excellence Awards which acknowledge excellence and innovation within Australian Government agencies.

More broadly in our region, we continued our close working relationship with archives and records authorities across Pacific nations, through the Pacific Regional Branch of the International Council on Archives (PARBICA). In the past year, five new modules of the renowned Recordkeeping for Good Governance Toolkit were finalised. These covered Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery, Assessing Significance, and Identifying Vital Records. They will be officially launched at the annual International Council on Archives (ICA) Conference in Yaoundé, Cameroon in late 2018.

Preserving and digitising our documentary heritage

The Archives' collection documents Australian history, from dramatic events that shaped the nation to decisions that touch the lives of individuals. There are many records about people, from the ordinary to the famous, and their interactions with the Australian Government.

To ensure these collections remain accessible, the Archives continued to lead on national standards for the arrangement, description, digitisation, preservation and management of the archival collection. In the past year, this has included providing advice, guidance and feedback to agencies and international colleagues on current and emerging issues related to standards and digital formats.

Following the opening of the new National Archives Preservation Facility in June 2017, we have focused on bedding down our policies and procedures in the new facility, as well as continuing to facilitate the transfer of agency records and preservation priorities.

Work continued with our colleagues at the National Film and Sound Archive on the urgent priority of digitising records on magnetic tape, which was used to capture much of our nation's cultural history during the 20th century. With the continuing deterioration of magnetic tape and the obsolescence of playback machinery, the Deadline 2025 strategy highlights the critical deadline to convert this material to a digital medium – before it becomes inaccessible.

Newly adopted national preservation and digitisation strategies will be crucial to ensuring that we preserve and protect records that are central to our cultural identity – as well as prioritising the digitisation of at-risk records and high-use information, including the audiovisual collections susceptible to obsolescence or deterioration.

Collaboration and engagement

While the East Block building in Canberra was being refurbished this year, we temporarily paused our onsite education programs, and closed the permanent and temporary galleries. However, this did not prevent many other exciting collaborations and public engagement activities.

Our exhibitions Without Consent: Australia's past adoption practices, A Place to Call Home? Migrant hostel memories and A Ticket to Paradise? continued to be well patronised as they toured rural and regional galleries. In late May a new exhibition, SPY: Espionage in Australia, opened at the Museum of the Riverina in Wagga Wagga. Developed in collaboration with ASIO, the exhibition reveals the personal experiences of intelligence officers and agents and the curious history of espionage and counterespionage in Australia, from Federation through to the present day.

Under our continuing Shared Histories agreement with the Archives Nationales de France a seminar program was held in Paris – Imagination, Exploration, Memory: French and Australian shared histories. Distinguished French and Australian historians explored the themes of discovery, economics and politics – drawing on both institutions' archival collections. This program is set to continue with a future seminar in Australia.

In collaboration with the State Library of South Australia, we jointly curated From Outback to Outer Space: Woomera 1955 – 1980, an exhibition drawing on the collections of both institutions and many others, which went on display in the South Australian Institute Building in late 2017. The exhibition, together with education and supporting programs, was part of the 68th International Astronautical Congress Cultural Program – the world's largest annual gathering of space professionals – held in Adelaide. Many thousands of conference delegates, members of the public and high school students from across South Australia experienced the exhibition and associated activities.

During the past year, the National Archives of Australia and National Archives of Japan concluded years of work, to see the gifting to Japan of thousands of archival records seized by the Australian Government at the outbreak of World War II. Some 3300 boxes of documents – created by branches of Japanese companies in Australia between 1899 and 1941 – were transferred from the Controller of Enemy Property to the custody of the Archives in the 1950s. In June 2018 Australia's Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, the Hon Steven Ciobo, presided over a ceremony in Tokyo to formally acknowledge the largest donation of records of its kind accepted by the National Archives of Japan – recognition of the highly valued, ongoing friendship and collaboration between Australia and Japan.

We also partnered with Canberra Museum and Gallery to present the exhibition Crafting the House on the Hill: art, design and the building of Australian Parliament House. For the exhibition our conservators checked and prepared an architectural model of the building and seven original Romaldo Giurgola watercolours.

Connecting with our cultural heritage

With the Archives' galleries in Canberra temporarily closed, Public Programs staff have been using the time productively with significant research, planning and design work to develop new exhibitions, galleries and public programming for the re-opening of the National Archives in the East Block building in 2019.

During the past year, the Archives' collection has continued to be widely explored online and through a diverse program of public activities in our state and territory offices. In Canberra, the reading room and the Charters of our Nation gallery were moved to Old Parliament House, and continue to provide access to the collection, as well as orientation services.

For Anzac Day 2018, the final school and community learning resources about World War I service records – developed through a four-year partnership with the Department of Veterans' Affairs for the Anzac Centenary Program – were launched on the Discovering Anzacs and Vrroom websites. They focus on how to examine the repatriation records, exploring the greater complexities and the ongoing mental and physical toll of World War I on individuals, families and the community. Two modules of special note focused on the role of women: Unsung Healers – women caring for veterans and The Aftermath of World War I – women in Australian society.

For Enlighten 2018 – Canberra's autumn light festival when Australia's national institutions open their doors at night, providing unique public experiences – the Archives hosted a seminar on Australia's second prime minister, Alfred Deakin, an activity of the First Eight Prime Ministers program.

Dr David Headon's engaging presentation shed new light on the contradictions and life of this enigmatic leader. 'Queen Victoria' was also on hand in the Charters of our Nation gallery, to guide and discuss with visitors the importance of the Royal Commission of Assent signed by Her Majesty on 9 July 1900, establishing as law the Bill providing for the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Australia's First Peoples

This year we launched the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy, reflecting our commitment to broaden and strengthen our capacity to engage and meet the needs of Indigenous Australians.

The Archives' first fully digital interactive exhibition, Facing Two Fronts: the fight for respect, went on display in the Northern Territory Archives Centre, Darwin. Through the lens of military service and the stories of those who served, this exhibition explores the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' fight for social justice. It was complemented with original collection material from both the National Archives and Northern Territory Archives Service. It will tour to the Sir John Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux, where it will be on display for the Centenary of the World War I Armistice, from September 2018.

In June 2018, at a special ceremony at the Northern Territory Archives Centre, the National Archives Advisory Council Chair, Dr Denver Beanland, acknowledged the significant service to the Archives of four Indigenous women, Rosie Baird, Valerie Day, Kathy Mills and Margaret Furber. They were awarded National Archives medallions for their work, recognising a combined contribution of more than 55 years of service on the National Archives Aboriginal Advisory Group in the Northern Territory.

During this visit to Darwin by the Advisory Council, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation, the Archives donated a full-size facsimile of the 1972 Larrakia petition to the corporation. Signed in 1972 by Indigenous Australians across the nation, it is one of the most important documents of Indigenous Australians' struggle for land rights in the early 1970s. The petition appealed to Queen Elizabeth to help the Aboriginal people of Australia gain land rights and political representation.

Transforming the Archives for the future

While the past year has again been a time of tremendous change, challenges, new opportunities and achievements, the future challenges for the Archives are real and ever present. Cybersecurity threats to the record of government, the digital capability that provides for the secure capture and preservation of government digital information, and the preservation of at-risk records continue to be critical priorities.

In a tight fiscal environment that remains challenging, the Archives has implemented a planned reorganisation in line with gradual downsizing. We have, however, made strategic choices to ensure that we continue to strive towards our vision of being a world leading archive in the digital age. We are embracing an ambitious program of work outlined in our recently launched Strategic Plan 2020 that will transform the Archives.

This program of work, already underway, will be across four areas:

  • enabling best practice information management
  • applying innovation in our approach to digital archiving, standards, policies and systems design
  • securing and preserving nationally significant information
  • connecting Australians to the Archives.

At the heart of this transformation is digital capability. In April 2018 the Archives commenced this transformation, establishing a Senior Executive Service–led Digital Archives Taskforce to define the processes, skills and tools that will equip us for a digital future. It will enable us to shape our strategies for the ongoing development of our human capital and technical infrastructure.

Following the International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) standard for an Open Archival Information System, this will also include the design and establishment of a new Enterprise Digital Archive, digital preservation capability and new access platform.

A new digital literacy program will equip our staff with the contemporary skills to work with digital tools and resources to deliver new services to the Australian Government, the Australian public and the global community.

Our efforts will continue to be driven by our primary purpose: to provide access to Australia's documentary heritage. We will implement new strategic and innovative public programs and services, including a digitally focused reference service through our Reference Strategy.

Planning has commenced for the Archives to relocate in late 2018 back to East Block. During 2019, exciting improvements to the public engagement spaces will be unveiled, including new permanent galleries, improved education and public program spaces, research facilities, and a new café and Archives store.

In the year ahead, to complement and enhance these new physical services in Canberra, the Archives will also deliver an updated web presence with new ways to access the collection, education and other resources – regardless of where our users live and work across the country or around the world.

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

David Fricker