Archives at the Crossroads
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In response to a range of indicators signaling a troubled state of affairs in the national archival system and in the archival sector more broadly, the National Archives and Records Service, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the University of the Witwatersrand, with the support of the Minister of Arts and Culture, collaborated in organising a two-day conference (23 and 24 April 2007) to assess the state of the national archival system and the vitality of the broader archival sector.
By national archival system we mean the institutional network of state structures driven by the National Archives, which is charged with the tasks of ensuring the proper management of public records, promoting the preservation and accessibility of South Africa’s archival heritage, and overseeing the national system. The system comprises the National Archives, the National Archives Advisory Council, the various provincial archives structures, and a range of related governance structures. In terms of the Constitution, archival responsibility for records of the state generated by structures other than national ones is the responsibility of provincial government.
The broader archival sector includes a range of heritage institutions, a clutch of museums with significant artifact collections, university archives, private and corporate archives, activist and community archives like the Gay and Lesbian Archive (GALA), or the issue-driven South African History Archive (SAHA) which seeks to ensure open access to archives; a variety of archival and memory projects locally, regionally and internationally such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory and Dialogue, the Living Landscape Project that performs the archive of Rock Art in a community base, the District Six Museum, and the Mellon-funded digitization projects DISA and ALUKA. It further includes users, creators and theorists of archive, among them professional historians, family history researchers, artists and other cultural workers, identity theorists, academics and countless others.
In the course of this report we refer to “archives,” “archiving” and “the archive.” We use the term “archives” to refer to collections or storehouses of preserved historical resources, whether documentary, oral, visual, material, virtual or physical. In so doing we deliberately break from an inherited usage of the term “archives” as limited to texts, whether documentary or oral. “Archiving” refers to a range of dynamic processes including the processes by means of which some items get preserved and others do not, how choices are made about systems used to preserve items, and the ways in which access to records is determined.
“The archive” is a conceptual term. It refers to the circumscribed body of knowledge of the past that is historically determined as that which is available to us to draw on when thinking about the past.