ASA/ITIC conference 2017


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Reflecting on a busy and challenging week in Melbourne at the Australian Society of Archivists conference, and processing some of the learnings and connections made. This was my first archiving conference, and I realised how much I don’t know about this field. But I was interested in the way the conference positioned itself as a challenge to its own field. The conference description stated:

The program will explore questions on the diversity of our collections, our profession and our audiences, as well as exploring the impact and potential of information technologies in indigenous communities and on traditional knowledge.

Who are collections for? Who do they represent? Who should hold them, manage access and use, and communicate content? We know that collections in the GLAMR (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Records) sectors contain representations of many different identities – cultural, ethnic, religious, political and sexual amongst many others – at points in time and over time. How should these myriad worlds be reflected to the wider community? What systemic changes are required to ensure new professionals entering the sector are a more diverse, broadly representative group than those who have come before?

The Melbourne conference seeks to examine the commonalities and differences between sectors, collections and communities, as well as the many different worlds represented within them. The concept of Diverse Worlds – inclusive of the non-binary, different and divergent – also challenges notions of cohesion and a singular professional identity. It recognises that our community is not fully representative, and the collections for which we are responsible are not discoverable, accessible or understandable to many. We need to ask how we can go beyond mere consultation and engagement, and question whether supporting true diversity involves relinquishing authority, custodianship and control.

The two keynote speakers for the ASA both distanced themselves from the archival profession, sharing frustrations with the lack of transformative power in the field as it currently stands. Verne Harris from the Nelson Mandela Foundation spoke about the power of transformational dialogue and its reliance on archives, giving examples from the South African experience, where “the struggle relies on the archive” such as in land restitution claims, outcomes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, state corruption, and the growth of inequality. He addressed the rhetoric of ‘hope’ but instead said that he has faith sustained by stories found in archive.

The closing keynote speaker, Jarrett Drake, in solidarity with his compatriots’ protests against racial injustice, did his whole address on one knee. He spoke of his disillusionment with the profession of archiving, and how the claims of diversity within the Society of American Archivists are ‘dangerous, delusional and disingenuous.’ I’m guessing it’s not the first time he has spoken about the need to dismantle white supremacy to a room full of mostly white archivists and researchers. My hope is that his PhD research will lead to something that will shake up the profession in the same way that Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” shook up education in its day.

The plenary on the second morning focused on Evaluating the impact of Indigenous Collections: Going way beyond metrics project in NZ. 3 of the speakers focused on a recent on the impact of digitised material in Te Reo Maori archival collections, where much consultation with Maori community members led to an online survey of users, which revealed some of the practices of the users of these archival materials, and one of the speakers referred to “the growing democratisation of what was once rare knowledge.” It was good to hear about the ‘other end’ of the archiving process, how the materials that have been archived are used and what impact the process of archiving can have. It’s difficult to measure, and there are no standards for how to do it for Indigenous materials. Perhaps one outcome of this session is more discussion on what would be involved in identifying such standards?

I had the opportunity to present the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages at the session on ‘Web and Mobile Evaluation‘, where a panel of experts in usability/UX (User Experience), accessibility issues, and archives and technology issues gave feedback. One of the panel couldn’t access our site at all (an audience member suggested it was blocked at the workplace rather than a technical issue for our website, which has been working fine), but his feedback on the other sites motivated me to address issues of accessibility in our site. The UX expert only looked at the home page and didn’t get to the Archive at all – her comment was that “maybe because I’m a millennial, I ignore anything on the left or right of the page” so she missed the “click here to enter the archive” button. This means we should change where the URLs point to, so others don’t have the same experience and miss all the fun of exploring the archive itself.It was also recommended that the map instructions remain visible while users are navigating the map (currently they disappear and the selected language or community fills that space). Happily the third panel member was very positive about our site, having worked in remote NT schools and recognising the value of our project.

The third day (ITIC) focused on the legacy of the late Dr Joe Gumbula, a senior Yolŋu songman who was also involved in important research to enhance knowledge of Indigenous archives and collections in Australia and internationally. Members of his family ‘smoked’ the participants in the grounds of Melbourne University, before a personal and moving keynote by Professor Aaron Corn about his mentor, father and colleague. This was accompanied by yiḏaki and singing by his brother and other Yolŋu musicians. After the later lecture, several people spoke warmly about the man and his legacy.

As usual at conferences, it’s a great opportunity to network with others working in the same area, and I made some good connections and came back with lots of business cards and notes of things, references or people to follow up.