This post was co-written by Richard Vines, Knowledge Management Specialist, Agriculture Research Division, Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.

Archives appear in the news frequently, and in a variety of forms.

This month historians and conspiracy theorists await the release of the JFK files. September 2017 saw the Lionel Murphy papers released, and the conclusion of Jenny Hocking’s federal court action to release the ‘palace letters’ related to the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. Meanwhile, records remain vital evidence for those seeking justice and redress, as seen in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, who published a Consultation Paper on records and recordkeeping practices in September 2016.

By comparison, the everyday records of governments may seem uninspiring. But good records and archives, combined with organisational knowledge management, remain central to transparency, public accountability, and the efficient and effective delivery of government programs and projects. Achieving this is not just about good information technology. The capabilities required are socio-technical; they require well-trained people and well-designed processes, as well as good tools.

For the past six years, the University of Melbourne’s eScholarship Research Centre (ESRC) has collaborated with the Victorian Government’s Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR) and its predecessors on this very issue. Last month some of that work was recognised with a Mander Jones Award for the article ‘Cultivating Capability: The Socio-Technical Challenges of Integrating Approaches to Records and Knowledge Management’ by Michael Jones and Richard Vines. The article is available as a post-print (free), or via the Records Management Journal (paywalled).

The Mander Jones Awards are administered by the Australian Society of Archivists. Our article was awarded under Category 5 – Best article or chapter about archives written by an Australian in an archives, library, museum or records management journal or within an anthology/monograph. Judges said of the article:

A fascinating study looking at the implementation of a knowledge management system that draws on archival theory. It extends ideas of knowledge management and archival description while providing a practical assessment of organisational responses to information management and a solution worthy of careful consideration and implementation.

We were honoured to be joint winners in Category 5 with Professor Sue McKemmish from Monash University. Her book chapter ‘Record Keeping in the Continuum – An Australian Tradition’ traces the emergence of the records continuum, an influential model for Australian archivists with its roots in mid-twentieth century archival practice and formalised in the 1990s. She highlights that “continuum theory” has emerged from an understanding that recordkeeping is important “through space and time in governance and accountability, remembering and forgetting, shaping identity and providing value-added sources of information.”

Our work, done in collaboration with ESRC director Associate Professor Gavan McCarthy, draws on this tradition to highlight how records and archives are central to the creation and maintenance of knowledge. Government departments and their work represent complex systems. Within DEDJTR this complexity can be difficult to navigate. A multitude of databases and electronic systems have created information silos and there is an over-reliance on individual experience when trying to understand recent work, let alone past projects. In contrast, the evolution of knowledge often requires the synthesis of widely distributed resources, from all levels of the organisation. The current landscape makes this extremely challenging.

‘Cultivating Capability’ explores these ideas through a particular case study. In the first half of 2015,  DEDJTR undertook a technology development project to underpin the work of Agriculture Victoria. The result was a new system with two major components: EMMA (Enhanced Metadata Management Application), a custom-built backend database; and KCT (knowledge curation tool), which consisted of user interfaces for the capture and creation of structured data about records and their contexts.

Effective use of this system results in a collision of work practices. Archival and records management work meets current business priorities, with elements of research, policy development, practice change, and impact monitoring thrown into the mix. But today’s government departments rarely include librarians, archivists, records managers, or other information professionals. These skills therefore need to be developed incrementally within the department. Without this, knowledge management and cross-disciplinary research will continue to be as problematic and challenging as ever.

These are difficult problems, with no quick or easy solutions. On the optimistic side, there are now countless examples where contemporary archival capabilities are now stimulating and reinforcing social change. Gavan McCarthy and his collaborators have applied these ideas to projects of national and international significance, from the management of information about nuclear waste to the documentation of the repatriation of Indigenous remains from overseas museums.

The ESRC’s Encyclopedia of Australian Science provides a register of the people, industries, records and publications that provide evidence for Australia’s scientific, technological and medical heritage. The Centre also works with the Federal Government on the long-standing Find & Connect Web Resource project, which helps Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants understand more about their past and the historical context of child welfare in Australia. The Find & Connect resource is an invaluable public knowledge space built on continuum principles, used by the community, support services, and researchers, among them lawyers working on the aforementioned Royal Commission.

Work on all these public knowledge resources is undertaken by experienced staff, drawing on professional training, and expertise developed across numerous disciplines and projects. Developing comparable capability within governments and organisations is not a simple exercise, but doing so is worth the investment.

What ‘Cultivating Capability’ demonstrates, and what the ESRC and its predecessors have been working on for more than three decades, is that archival practices and processes are not focused on the past. The tools and capabilities required are relevant to today’s world, to critical inquiry and public trust building, with a range of benefits for the public sector and the public at large. Archivists and knowledge managers are working to capture key records and information today to ensure they remain discoverable, accessible and meaningful tomorrow, and well into the future.

We would like to thank the Mander Jones Awards Committee and the Australian Society of Archivists for this award. Information on the other winners for 2016 is available here.