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Archival Science

, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 333–359 | Cite as

Placing records continuum theory and practice

  • Sue McKemmish
Articles

Abstract

This article provides an overview of evolving Australian records continuum theory and the records continuum model, which is interpreted as both a metaphor and a new world-view, representing a paradigm shift in Kuhn's sense. It is based on a distillation of research findings drawn from discourse, literary warrant and historical analysis, as well as case studies, participant observation and reflection. The article traces the emergence in Australia in the 1990s of a community of practice which has taken continuum rather than life cycle based perspectives, and adopted postcustodial approaches to recordkeeping and archiving. It “places” the evolution of records continuum theory and practice in Australia in the context of a larger international discourse that was reconceptualizing traditional theory, and “reinventing” records and archives practice.

Keywords

archival metatext records continuum recordkeeping 

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References

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    There are parallels here with the major shift in the way historians view their role in constructing collective memory. For example, Australian historian Paula Hamilton has written insightfully about the role of historians in helping to organise and later dismantle “structures of forgetting”: One of the most powerful myths that dominates the Australian historical landscape is that this is a new country (the corollary of Britain as theold country) and that we have ashort history. Indeed, travellers to Australia from the nineteenth century onwards would often comment that they perceived it as a placewithout history. The idea of an historicaltabula rasa is of course a settler story, a British migrant story, told by several generations of English and European migrants to each other. Memories of invasion and death of indigenous peoples could more easily be erased, or at least attenuated, by the migrant experience... But in the last thirty years there has been a huge shift in our understanding of what constitutes anAustralian past, aspects of which are now fairly well outlined. We have begun to perceive organised structures of forgetting in relation to the Aboriginal people, structures which the historians both helped to erect, and many years later, to break down. (P. Hamilton, “The Knife Edge: Debates About Memory and History”, in K. Darian-Smith and P. Hamilton (eds).,Memory and History in Twentieth-century Australia (Melbourne: OUP, 1994), pp. 13–14.) Hamilton could equally well be referring to the role of records managers, archivists and other information management professionals. As in other areas of Australian life, the reconciliation movement is profoundly challenging our ideas about who we are and what we do. Archival practice in Australia has been questioned by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, in particular in relation to the accessibility of records that contain essential evidence of identity, family links, and land claims (see for example, R. Baird, “Researching the Displaced Children”, inArchives at the Centre: Proceedings of the Australian Society of Archivists Conference, Alice Springs, 24–25 May 1996 (Canberra: ASA, 1997), pp. 14–19). There have been some significant responses, including theAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives, and Information Services (compiled by Alex Byrne, Alana Garwood, Heather Moorcroft, and Alan Barnes for the ATSI Library and Information Resource Network, 1995), the National Archives of Australia exhibition,Between Two Worlds and a number of projects to re-describe and re-index records relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Reflecting the predominant view of the time — and neatly encapsulating the aims of the Australian government policy which removed children of white fathers from their Aboriginal mothers and extended families in order to assimilate them into the white community — the name indexing schemes in records and archives systems have used the European names of Aboriginal children and places, thus masking identity and kinship/country ties, and limiting access to these vital records. Reflecting the reconciliation movement of our time, iterative descriptive practices add context and build new structures of remembering and forgetting. However, the response of the archival community in Australia has largely been a strategic, policy driven one. Potentially theProtocols and the issues that underlie them profoundly challenge aspects of archival principles and practice, including archival collection, description, and access policies, but as yet, this has not been widely recognised or addressed in the literature. The development of theProtocols was driven by the need to access essential evidence of identity and family links, native title claims, and Aboriginal culture, history and languages. They only begin to address accessibility, use, description, and classification practices, as well as policies on intellectual property, the treatment of secret and sacred materials, the management of archival materials relating to ATSI peoples in culturally sensitive ways, the education and training of ATSI peoples for professional practice, and the repatriation of records to ATSI communities. For a review of theProtocols, see Judy English-Ellis, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Archives: A Review Commentary”,Archives and Manuscripts 24(1) (May 1996): 146–153.Google Scholar
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    Terry Cook, “Beyond the Screen”, op. cit. The Records Continuum and Archival Cultural Heritage”, presented at the Australian Society of Archivists National Conference,Beyond the Screen: Capturing Corporate and Social Memory, Melbourne, August 2000, available via http://www.archivists.org.au/.Google Scholar
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    Harris' notion of the archival heartland, explored in “Law, Evidence and Electronic Recordkeeping”, op. cit., has many resonances with this view of the records continuum as place.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sue McKemmish
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Information Management and SystemsMonash UniversityCaulfield EastAustralia

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