National memory, just like memorialisation, is a strange thing.
It is interesting to see the emergence of questions about the announcement that the National Archives of Australia will shortly end its presence in Tasmania, the Northern Territory and South Australia - noted recently in this blog.
One analyst commented that those locations hold significant records of ongoing interest and in different formats, including substantial quantities of photographs. Examples include the Child Migrant collection and records relating to Maralinga (in Adelaide), material regarding the 'Bringing Them Home' inquiry and its results (in Darwin), and Australian Antarctic Division material (in Hobart). Presumably researchers - official and private - will need to pack their bags and visit Canberra or Sydney, as the NAA's enthusiasm for large-scale digitisation of images appears to have waned. Perhaps the Archives will simply shuttle records to and from the east coasts, although that will implicitly restrict access and will of course erode the cost-savings foreshadowed by the NAA executive.
One reader of this blog wondered whether closure means that the NAA will face costs in restoring the premises to the condition required by the terms of the leases. There are also questions about the cost of employee redundancy, relocation and any retraining. So far there has been no public statement about the "sympathetic institutions" (curious phrase) that might provide storage on behalf of the NAA. That provision would presumably be at rates comparable to commercial service providers, given that the state archives are under pressure from their masters to make cost savings and 'sweat' public sector assets.
A true partnership between the NAA and its state/territory counterparts (with shared facilities, a genuine commitment of funding and opportunities for the strengthening of professional skills) would arguably be a step forward in enhancing access by all Australians to the records of government. However, it would be a bold step, a reshaping of the archival landscape and of Commonwealth/State relationships, to be undertaken on a strategic rather than reactive basis.
It is unclear from the NAA statement that such a step is envisaged; instead the NAA may be simply preemptively pruning several of its limbs and trusting that the administrative version of 'tea & sympathy' will be forthcoming from its Minister or from its state peers.
DIY corporate surgery using a chainsaw sometimes backfires: the benefits aren't as great as expected and the smell of blood excites the unwholesome. It is easy to imagine the drier economic rationalists asking why the NAA shouldn't further cut costs by euthanasing its Perth and Brisbane branches, and why the reduction of "service costs" in Canberra cannot be taken further. (Presumably Brisbane will survive until after the NAA hosts the International Council of Archives congress in 2012.)
The NAA 2009-10 component of the portfolio Budget Statement indicates that -
A need for a new storage and preservation facility remains as pressing as ever because the Archives' current storage facilities are very close to full capacity. The Archives estimates that it will have to curtail transfers from agencies in approximately five years time if new storage capacity does not become available. In addition, the current storage facilities are ageing and costly to operate, especially in terms of their energy costs. Hence, one of the Archives' major priorities for the coming financial year will be to complete the business case for a new state of the art storage and preservation facility.Beancounters or opportunists in search of easy short-term fixes might ask why not close the Victorian office and ship those holdings to a spanking new facility in a cowpaddock on the outskirts of Canberra?
Why not go further and adopt the 'Irish Model', ie merge the national library and national archives? (The minister responsible for that merger commented in the Irish legislature on 21 October that "Bodies such as the National Archives do not move with quite the same speed as greyhounds". Quite so, when they're missing a leg or two rather than merely being underfed and under-loved.)
Concerned citizens may wish to raise their concerns with the Director-General, with the NAA Advisory Council (a body sufficiently important, it seems, to justify memorialisation through publication of a book with the title A Necessary Safeguard) and with the Minister.