Posted on February 6, 2013
During the Christmas break I decided to tackle a project I had postponed for too long: to track down information about my great-grandmother, a figure who has always been in the shadows of our family history. My first post of call in this quest was the National Archives Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). I clicked in the relevant link on the National Archives website expectantly. To disappointment I received an error message. I tried again a couple of days later: another error message. I posted a message on the Archival Platform Facebook page and was astounded by the responses from a number of very irritated and justifiable angry genealogists whose work had ground to a halt because they too could not access the system.

This experience brought home the degree to which researchers have become reliant on being able to access information from their own desks. It also made me realise how important it is to have a fully function automated archival information retrieval system!

Some background: The National Archives is required, in accordance with National Archives and Records Service Act of South Africa, No 43 of 1996 as amended, to 'maintain a national automated archival information retrieval system, in which all provincial archives services shall participate' and to 'maintain national registers of non-public records with enduring value, and promote co-operation and co-ordination between institutions having custody of such records'.

The idea of the National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System' (NAAIRS) was not new in 1996. It is probably not common knowledge that this system was established by the national Archives in 1974, making South Africa a world leader in archival automation at the time. By 1996, when the Act was promulgated, the NAAIRS had grown to contain over six million records drawn from the databases of all the then-existing public archive repositories. Today, the NAAIRS Database includes over seven million records - documents, photographs and audio-visual material - created, received or collected by all spheres of government and by participating institutions. While many more retrieval systems offer users direct access to digital images of archival material, the NAAIRS was designed to serve simply as a catalogue to the archives.

For many years, researchers wishing to access the NAAIRS could do so only through terminals housed in the various archival repositories. Between 1999 and 2001 a major project was undertaken to web-enable the NAAIRS and make it publicly available through the then newly-created National Archives website. This development, which makes it possible for researchers anywhere in the world to access the NAAIRS via the internet, contributed significantly to the National Archives commitment to 'taking archives to the people.

NAAIRS is 40 years old, the website and the website has been in use in its current form for ten. The system is outdated and difficult to maintain so it's encouraging to hear that the National Archives in partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) and the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) have embarked on a project to revamp both significantly.

The biggest challenge that the developers of the new system face is to integrate three distinctly different components: a new publicly accessible user-friendly, search and retrieval database; an Electronic Archival Management System (EAMS) that will take into account the National Archives requirement to meet international standards for archival description and cataloguing and collections management and: the new Enterprise Content Management System (ECM) which is being developed for government. The successful integration of the latter into the system will provide for a seamless transfer of 'born digital' records in the future.

The new EAMS includes a suite of cutting edge archival management products including the International Council on Archives Access to Memory software (ICA-AtoM) 'a fully web-based, multi-lingual, archival description software that was commissioned by the International Council on Archives to make it easy for archival institutions worldwide to put their archival holdings online using the ICA's descriptive standards' and Achivematica 'an integrated suite of free and open-source tools that allows users to process digital objects from ingest to archival storage and access in compliance with the ISO-OAIS functional model and other digital preservation standards and best practices'.

While the system promises to give archivists and other users access to the latest technology, its success will depend on the availability of resources for implementation, maintenance and ongoing development. The new system provides the means through which records can be managed and made accessible, but, at the end of the day its reliant on human capacity, on the input from archivists responsible for acquiring, describing and capturing the meta-data. It is our fervent hope that the Department of Arts and Culture finds a way to make the resources available for this on-going and challenging task.

Postscript: When I found, on Wednesday 10th January that the NAAIRS had been down for at least 10 days I emailed the Department of Arts and Culture. I was delighted to receive responses from Director General Sibusiso Xaba and Deputy Director General / Chief Operating officer Veliswa Baduza within 3 hours assuring me that they would attend to the matter. The following morning I received a note from Baduza that action was being taken. I collated comments from the Facebook page detailing actions taken by various researchers to alert the National Archives DAC/ SITA to the problem and forwarded this information to Baduza who instructed her staff to ensure that the system was up and running by the end of the day! It was! We wish to congratulate and thank the DAC for dealing with this issue promptly and efficiently! It seems a pity that the problems were not picked up and addressed internally and we hope that the DAC's set in place appropriate monitoring mechanisms to do so in the future.

For the record, while the National Archives is responsible for capturing data for inclusion in the NAAIRS, the DAC is responsible for the management of the system which is hosted and maintained by the SITA.

By the way, I'm still searching for information about my great-grandmother; but that'll be the subject of another post…

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform

Acknowledgements: Information on the history of the NAAIRS is drawn from an unpublished paper presented by Clive Kirkwood at the National Heritage Council workshop 'South African Archives, Digitization and Ownership' in 2005. Information relating to the revamp of the system is drawn from a telephonic discussion with Erna-Marie Pretorius, head of the National Archives Records Management Programme.