National Archives of Australia

Cornel Platzer

Director, National Preservation Operations

National Archives of Australia

Queen Victoria Terrace Parkes Act 2600

Canberra, Australia
2011 UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize


Illuminating the Past and the Digital Future


As a nation Australia came into being on 1 January 1901, with the federation of six colonies creating the Commonwealth of Australia. Not surprisingly the young nation has a very young national archive, which traces its short history to a landmark event in 1961 when independence from the National Library of Australia was gained to establish the Commonwealth Archives Office. It wasn't until the National Archives of Australia (then known as Australian Archives) was underpinned by the Archives Act 1983, that it had a solid legislative mandate to preserve the archives of Australia's federal government. 

The National Archives of Australia (the Archives) can best be described as the custodian for the memory of the Australian nation. The Archives manages, preserves and makes accessible Australian government records (including the output of its national public broadcasters), that reflect the country's history and identity, tracing events and decisions that have shaped the nation and the lives of Australians. The Archives supports Australians to better understand their heritage and democracy by ensuring that records are increasingly accessible to the public via the internet.
To ensure the most valuable records are kept for future generations, the Archives provides support and guidance to Australian government agencies to implement effective information management regimes, using contemporary standards and practices. Not only does this approach support the long term preservation of Australia''s heritage, it also supports informed decision-making, government accountability and protects the rights and entitlements of Australian citizens.

Unlike the era in which the Archives was born, when paper reigned supreme, the emphasis is now firmly on managing information (documents, emails, datasets and audiovisual material) in the digital form. Since 1994 the Archives recognised that it was essential for it to adopt a leadership role on the frontier of digital recordkeeping within government and the preservation of digital records of archival value. In 2000 the National Archives undertook to accept custody of all digital records appraised as having archival value, regardless of format.  The Archives was among the first government archival institutions worldwide to address this issue. In 2002 the Archives published its strategy for ls"born-digital' records that has guided its digital preservation and archiving developments to this day. The "essential performance" model then proposed by the Archives has become an accepted approach to the preservation of digital records across the globe.

The Archives' in-house developed digital preservation software has been made freely available for use by all interested organisations since 2003. The development of many digital preservation frameworks by government and non-government organisations has been informed by the Archives' digital preservation principles, open-source preservation software and the hardware architecture deployed by the Archives. Within the Archives, the Digital Archive contains ls"born-digital' records largely of textual material from government agencies, as well as the personal records of distinguished Australian political individuals such as Prime Ministers. The vastly more storage-hungry audiovisual productions that are now flowing into the Archives for long term preservation are the impetus behind the current re-scaling of digital workflows and storage infrastructure to meet the specific requirements of audiovisual formats. The Archives looks forward to sharing this work also with the broader digital preservation community.

It is not only issues that affect contemporary formats that exercise the Archives, it has addressed preservation concerns about some of the oldest and the most significant documents in its collection. While the documents are not from the late Middle Ages they are affected by iron gall ink which was used from the Middle Ages until the early twentieth century. The ink was used broadly for writing humble everyday letters, to legal or legislative documents. Hundreds of historic recipes and various methods of preparation exist for iron gall ink. The basic ingredients were crushed oak galls (abnormal, small spherical growths on oak trees containing tannins), iron sulfate (naturally occurring in run-off from iron mines or extracted from rusty iron nails), gum arabic (resin from the Acacia tree) and a liquid (water, beer, wine or urine - as available or preferred!!), but varying proportions were used. The resulting ink was acidic because the process that formed the black colour also produced sulfuric acid.

The ink's perceived permanence was a desirable feature. Despite this attribute, the ink has inherent problems:  some iron gall inks have a corrosive nature over time, creating a brown halo around the ink lines and at worst effectively ls"eating' their way through the support, creating a ls"lace-like' effect. The preservation of iron gall ink documents is a small but important issue for the Archives which holds a number of significant documents written in the ink. The most important and historic document in the Archives' care is Australia's ls"birth certificate':  Queen Victoria's Commission of Assent to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 9 July 1900. The document was written with iron gall ink on parchment and soon after signed in iron gall ink by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.

The Archives' research into iron gall ink has taken two paths. The Archives has looked into the use of analytical tools like infra-red spectrophotometry and raman spectrophotometry to reveal the deterioration rate of the inks; and more recently the Archives has explored projected deterioration rates through the use of micro-fading.  Micro fading has revealed that the inks used on the Archives most significant documents are prone to fading in a middle range - not fast and not slow. The study also revealed the trend for all of the inks to move from black/brown towards yellow. This information has informed the strategy to address public display of the documents resulting in greatly reduced exposure times and determining new ways of managing public access.

The National Archives is honoured that its innovative approach to the preservation of both old and new mediums and its willingness to share the results of its work worldwide, has been recognised in the 2011 UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize.


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