| Access to archival records: A review of current issues: A RAMP study |
4.1 Providing access to the information acquired and preserved by an institution is central to the delivery of archival programmes. It is only when records get used that archives can best demonstrate their usefulness to society. The aim of researcher access services, consequently, should be to lower the intellectual and psychological barriers to archives so that as many individuals as possible can read, touch, learn from, and enjoy those documents that illuminate past experience. It is not enough to know that there may be pertinent or interesting information in archives; users must be able to retrieve and consult that information, particularly in an era when information has become a valued commodity.
4.2 Establishing the rules under which users may gain access to records is a main building block for any researcher access programme, as such rules set the conditions under which subsequent services will be provided. There are three main principles that should be respected when access regulations are developed.
4.3 First, archives must be committed to equal terms of access. As the joint statement on access issued by the American Library Association and the Society of American Archivists states, "A repository should not deny access to materials to any researcher, nor grant privileged or exclusive use of materials to any researcher, nor conceal the existence of any body of material from any researcher, unless required to do so by statutory authority, institutional mandate, or donor or purchase stipulations." In other words, archives must do away with policies that differentiate between categories of researchers or research. Equality of access, however, should not be confused with equality of service. Clearly, different user groups must be served in the fashion that most effectively meets their needs.
4.4 Secondly, access conditions must be as precise as possible. When these are not governed by strict legal frameworks, such as access to information legislation, they must be clear to all concerned. And when special discretionary access is granted (for example, to personal information provided it is used only for statistical purposes), the conditions set have to be enforcable. Otherwise, it will be impossible for archives to apply a cohesive access policy.
4.5 Traditionally, adequate passage of time has been the approach most used by archives when setting exemptions. The rationale has been that, as time passes, information becomes less sensitive. This principle also has the advantage that it is easy to administer and has a finite date. Currently, periods of thirty and fifty years are common. This approach has had its detractors in recent years, however, who have argued that it results in some unsensitive information being upheld for no reason other than it is not sufficiently old.
4.6 This approach has also been put into question as a result of recent changes in the governing cultures of certain countries. Emerging democracies have supported the disclosure of older records containing information of a highly sensitive nature. In some cases, for instance, liberalized access rules have provided never-before glimpses into a documentary heritage that had been the purview of a privileged few for many years. Institutions have to, and will for some time to come, provide for the orderly disclosure of such information. In the case of classified information already held in repositories, massive efforts are being made to review, with the purpose of making available, records relating to diplomatic, intelligence, military, and related issues. In some cases, new laws redefining state secrets will have to be written before records are declassified and disclosed.
4.7 Thirdly, the rights to privacy of citizens should be strictly enforced. Concerns about the protection of information about recognizable individuals and access to that information by third parties are currently gaining prominence. In some circles, this is resulting in demands for destruction of personal information of a highly sensitive nature. Archives, through proper and effective access policies, must provide a better alternative.
4.8 Above all, access frameworks must reflect the values and mores of the collectivities concerned. To be respected and administered effectively, legal frameworks must be couched in the beliefs and values of the people they govern. This should then be articulated by institutional policies and guidelines concerning the control and availability of information. Related guidelines should control the actual manipulation of records - an issue that is gaining importance as the copying of archival information on alternate formats becomes more prevalent.
4.9 Access rules in private archives of course operate under different, and usually more restrictive, principles than those in public institutions and sponsored by national, state, city, or university governments. Private repositories such as businesses, unions, and churches must support the work of their immediate sponsors. As Elizabeth Adkins has stated, corporate archives exist to "serve the company in its ongoing efforts to produce a profit. Archivists working for a corporation must understand, accept and support this principle, or their programs will not long survive." This reality usually results in practices whereby use of the information released to staff or external clients is controlled by the corporation.
4.10 Once the "rules of access" layer has been removed, users must penetrate the "intellectual access" layer. This is usually initiated by a question - for instance, What do you have on the Second World War? or Do you have a photograph of Winston Churchill? - for which direction in locating suitable information is sought. An archives' approach in responding to such initial queries will determine the extent to which clients find the information required, the richness of the contextual background and related cross-referenced information, and the time they require to do so. Concurrently, it will determine the amount of resources archives have to devote to the reference function.
4.11 Two important weaknesses in the reference delivery systems of archives need to be corrected. First, archives must develop access tools that will enable independent research as much as it is possible. Face-to-face interaction in the research process, where archivists actually try to find in the holdings the answers to the questions they are asked, must be reduced as it is highly inefficient and time and space dependent. This approach must be replaced by research tools that are sufficiently inclusive and accessible to permit independent browsing of an institution's services and holdings, on-site and increasingly, at a distance over computer networks. Secondly, archives must devise strategies to respond efficiently to ever-increasing demands. They must refocus their efforts, which are based on the traditional assumption of "low-use," so that users can be served, on and off-site, simultaneously.
4.12 In such a changing environment, the archivist-researcher dialogue needs to be updated from the traditional question-answer scenario. Traditional researcher services have relied on the expertise of archivists to provide researchers with personalized advice and assistance in gaining access to pertinent documents held by repositories. Supplementing the "omniscient archivist" have been numerous finding aids and descriptive tools of varying usefulness. This method of operating is no longer feasible, however, as it seriously erodes all other archival functions in a repository. If maintained at such a personal level, it could be anticipated that in a short period of time archivists would devote the greater part of their time to responding to queries at the expense of the appraisal, acquisition, arrangement, and description of records.
4.13 The spheres of activity of archivists and researchers must consequently be redefined. The prime responsibility of archives in the area of access is to provide the descriptive and educational aids that will enable intellectual and physical access to the holdings. In other words, archives must describe and explain the content and contexts of their holdings in such a way that users themselves may navigate within the access framework of the institution.
4.14 This scenario does not necessarily imply that archivists and researchers must operate in totally exclusive environments. It is the nature of the interventions that must differ. Archivists, instead of leading the research process, must act as specialists to be consulted when a search is initiated or when the investigative trails have dried. The focus must be on assisting users in making choices from among the vast quantity of information available.
4.15 Archival access programmes must also separate the research process from physical access to the records. Users should be able to obtain a holistic view of the records available in a particular institution through the various research tools made available to them. From that "high-level" or "top-down" view, they should then be able to assess the information value of the records and consequently select those that appear to contain the best answers to their questions. The multi-level approach to archival description (fords, sous-fonds, series, etc.) is an ideal mechanism for reorienting research from item-based to such a general-to-specific navigation. In such an environment, familiarity with a medium or ease of access will no longer foil the research process as it currently does in most repositories.
4.16 Because archives have been weak at systematically describing their holdings, they have discouraged users from building their own research products. Too often bridges are not built between the finding aids that have been inherited, the tools developed to maintain physical control over holdings, and those required to conduct adequate research. In numerous cases, archives simply make available those finding aids that were provided by the creators of the records. These reflect the latters' strengths or weaknesses at organizing and retrieving information. In other cases, physical control tools or outdated finding aids are used for public access, thus requiring constant mediation by archivists.
4.17 Archives must correct this situation. First, it is imperative that institutions provide users with an overview of the records they hold. The intent is to introduce them properly to the nature and extent of the holdings, to the activities and functions of the record creators they document, and to the fashion in which they are organized and consequently can be retrieved. Much of this information should be based on research conducted at the time of appraisal. Indeed, what is learned at that time should be migrated into archival descriptive systems. This body of knowledge must include information about the function per se, but also about methods used to manage and retrieve that information. Essential information resulting from the appraisal process must be made clear to researchers in descriptive tools. For example, series of case files may all look the same for a particular programme. But, the archivist may have chosen several series for quite different and incompatible reasons: a statistically valid sample of the whole population, a geographical or ethnically-based selection, appeal cases, or a blind example. Without knowing the appraisal decision-making rationales, the researcher may misuse the information.
4.18 In determining points of entry and access, archives must, therefore, respect the need to provide context to records. Users must understand the purpose for which the information was created, the special reasons (if any) for which it was acquired, the conditions under which it was created, and the way in which it was manipulated and managed. This may be done by focusing on the creators of the records, the functions being documented, and the records themselves. Hierarchical and inherent relationships between these three should also be maintained and explained. With these, researchers will be able to go from level to level, or within a level, using the descriptive information as a guide.
4.19 Overall, efficient access systems rely on the implementation of consistent descriptive standards. Holdings must be described in a coherent fashion if they are to be selected, used, and understood by myriad user groups with varying degrees of research experience. Systematic descriptive practices also enable the sharing and dissemination of information in electronic systems. That archives have come to recognize the importance of descriptive standards in making information available is demonstrated by the work currently being accomplished throughout the world.
4.20 An important aspect of descriptive standards is the development of authority controls that manage the holdings vocabulary and, increasingly, may store substantial contextual information about creators, rather than just "see also" cross-reference synonyms. The terms used to describe creators, functions, and any other related key elements of information must be consistent if cross-referencing is to work effectively. Yet, it is only when the inter-relationship between records, their creators, and their functions is demonstrated that coherent paths through the many series of records can be built. This is particularly essential for electronic records as they are often the product of numerous creators and will have been submitted to many uses in their active period.
4.21 This "contextual" approach implies a rejection of item-level as the principal and unique access point. Archives have often justified their use of item-level access by claiming that they are merely responding to user expectations. It has been stated, for instance, that many users of photographs are only interested in obtaining a single item (for instance, a portrait of Winston Churchill) and consequently will not spend time selecting the photograph that best meets their needs. This may be the case in instances when users are confronted with masses of records for which there appears to be no logical access scheme. If archives succeed in adopting universal general-to-specific descriptive methods, they will permit users to make individual choices in a coherent and effective fashion. (This could result, for instance, in selecting a photograph of Winston Churchill from among the official portraits, the military records, political papers, etc.) Until then, however, the temptation to target items will be impossible to control.
4.22 This is not to say that item-level access is incompatible with archival records. This approach works best with series of records that contain identical information and for which there are specific and limited uses. For instance, when working with immigration records, it may be possible to develop standard access points for names of ship, ports of entry, nationalities, dates, and like information. Researchers may then target the information they require to identify a particular individual. The creation of such specialized reference tools, however, has to be balanced against reference needs and available resources since not all records can be given such item-level treatment.
4.23 With non-paper records, access may also be as much a question of technology as of content. For instance, with audio-visual records, access implies more than retrieval from storage areas. In the case of films, special conservation and security measures must be followed to gain access to some formats, such as nitrate film. Specialized equipment must also be acquired to view the information.
4.24 In some ways, the creation of the videocassette has revolutionized access practices as they relate to audio-visual material. This product has enabled the copying, for consultation purposes, of material held on fragile supports. It has also facilitated the wide diffusion of such materials. As for other visual records, CD-ROM and like technologies now permit the copying of images, again for reference purposes; they also enable the matching of images and descriptive text, thus providing access to the documents and to descriptive (i.e. what it is) and contextual (i.e. what it is about) information.
4.25 Much like audio-visual materials, access services for electronic records is technology and machine dependent. Without the appropriate hardware and software, the magnetic tape or floppy diskette storing an archival electronic record is unreadable. Because of this, and the hundreds of combinations of hardware and software used by records creators, archivists attempted until recently to acquire only "flat files," that is, electronic records stripped of their software codes and readable through several popular statistical manipulation packages. With the flat file came related (and essential) documentation, consisting of a code book explaining the values of each data element, a record layout detailing the physical configuration of the data on the tape or diskette, a data dictionary, and so on. Reference service for electronic records consisted merely of giving the researcher a version of the flat file (sometimes made anonymous by removing personal identifiers) copied onto a blank magnetic tape, along with copies of the associated documentation. The researcher then was left to attempt to run the records through the appropriate software an outside computer facility. In effect, archival reference service amounted to little more than performing as a records centre where data files were treated like library books.
4.26 This early approach has changed for two reasons. First, the kinds of electronic records being acquired no longer are simple survey and statistical records amenable to flat file reformatting. Relational databases and office systems, to say nothing of geographical information systems and hypertext formats, are software dependent and cannot be handed over to a researcher to be used without archival intervention. Secondly, with the personal computer revolution, researchers are interested in data manipulation at their desks and access to archival holdings through telecommunication linkages and networks. Archives have had to adapt to this changing environment. One way they have done so is by providing accessible data extracts (on diskette, for example) from huge data holdings for researcher manipulation on standard, readily available software. Through in-house archival database management systems, archivists can also help researchers recreate the relational connections between entities in data files acquired from database environments, thus enabling researchers to recover the evidence of the decision-making processes of the original data users in the records-creating institution. In these ways archivists are moving from the library approaches to data to a records one which not only makes the medium come alive for researchers, but also enhances its rich contextual and provenancial potential.
4.27 Recent technological processes that can be applied to all forms of records have provided opportunities for improved access to holdings. The National Archives of Canada, for instance, has developed a CD-ROM product entitled ArchiVIA CD-ROM 1992. This reference tool permits direct access to selected information describing National Archives holdings. Specialized products focussing on native claims, transportation, and Prime Ministers, and combining sources from different media will also be developed. The American International Research & Exchange Board (IREX) has sponsored the preparation of a database listing all archives and manuscript repositories throughout Russia, together with a brief identification of their holdings, and other vital information for researchers. Spain has developed the National Archives Information System which includes a database currently storing information from 30,000 archives services in thirty of the fifty Spanish provinces. This database is accessible through a national information network. These technological tools have two great advantages. First, they enable quick and much more comprehensive research than their traditional paper counterparts; secondly, access to them is not space - or even time specific.
4.28 It is now apparent that technology may be harnessed to service the dissemination objectives of information professionals. But technology is also prone to reengineering, from one generation to another. This reality must be addressed by archives as they plan their delivery systems. In the case of software-dependent documents, Avra Michelson and Jeff Rothenberg have provided two general approaches: "Either (the documents) must be transformed in some way that makes them independent of the software that created them, or they must be saved along with some kind of description of their associated software that is sufficient to allow accessing them as originally intended." Before migrating information, however, institutions should carefully assess the cost and work required against the value of the information. In the case of the equipment itself, institutions should choose products that are manufacturer independent and that abide by recognized standards, whether these are actual or de facto.
4.29 Finally, archives must be prepared for the time when they may not be able to house all information of permanent value falling under their mandate. Reasons of cost, technology, long-term operational needs, high reference rates, and statutory provisions are already impeding the acquisition of some records, and some archives are turning it into a positive strategy rather than a negative obstacle. In these situations, archives have to consider sharing custodial responsibilities with the creators. What must be negotiated is the extent to which repositories will preserve and control the designated information in creating institutions, the levels of description, conservation, and access to be provided by the creating institution to records declared to be archival, and the nature of the "information broker" role to be played by the archives.