Policies and Practices in Access to Digital Archives (Budapest 2012)

The first international school Policies and Practices in Access to Digital Archives was held on 2-6 July 2012 in Budapest, Hungary with generous support  support of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, Central European University and Open Society Foundations. Its aim was to map the opportunities and challenges for the archival domain at the moment of transition towards digital access, covering various facets of the process, including policies and legal provisions, IPR, business modeling, digital curation and preservation, information visualization and usability along with digital humanities tools.

In accordance with the vision of the school’s directors, the directors, Gabriella Ivacs (Open Society Archives at the Central European University) and Milena Dobreva (University of Malta), such a complex question demanded an assembly representing different types of expertise (archivists, activists, policymakers and researchers) and operating at different institutional scales (non-governmental, state or EU). Bringing together 33 participants and 12 lecturers from 23 countries, the school focused on the state of the field in Europe, however the participants from Africa and North America contributed to the discussions in a substantial way, enabling to distinguish the transitional trends which have a global relevance.

The programme of the four very intensive days was designed to create synergy between policies and practices. The participants had an opportunity to interact with eminent experts and policy makers such as Joy Davidson (Digital Curation Center, UK), Paul Keller (Knowledgeland,The Netherlands) or Harry Verwaheyen (The European Digital Library Foundation, The Netherlands), who presented not only on the state of the art institutional and legal frameworks, but also put special emphasis on the contested and unresolved matters. The latter were discussed during brainstorming sessions and workshop activities, which in turn generated significant practice-driven feedback.

Notwithstanding many heated debates and considerable caveats, the participants had reached a consensus on the matter of promoting open access and open data. Despite the uncertainties which accompany the process of transition, the archives’ mission to provide public access to cultural and scientificcommons, which increasingly are digital commons, creates a demand for innovation in order to secure a sustainable legal, economic and technological environment for its operations. That in turn translates into the need to address various burning issues, including: the awareness that digital curation becomes an autonomous domain of expertise, irreducible to the conventional or analogue archival practices, which demands different understanding of the life-cycle of the digital archival matter, new type of training, as well as the facilitation of the transfer of knowledge and best practices in providing open access to digital resources from the more to the less advanced institutions; that practicing archivists, through their professional associations, need to take a more active role in shaping the institutional framework in their own domain; that balance needs to be found between accessibility and privacy, as well as between the archives’ public mission and their economic sustainability, taking into consideration both the capacity for innovation and the interests of the commercial actors who have an increasing share in the digitization of cultural heritage and digital access to information.

The above matters of concern are at the same time vectors of future involvement. The school found  its immediate continuation in a form of a networking platform which was set up to facilitate the communication and exchange of knowledge and best practices. The platform also serves to design new research agendas and new curricula for professional training as well as cultural policy-making. In the second half of 2013, the first outcomes of this ongoing cooperation will be presented in a panel during the TPDL conference in Valetta, Malta and further elaborated during a follow-up summer course, to be held in Macerata, Italy.