Aust-wide records authority proposed

Aust-wide records authority proposed

National Archives of Australia to legally control standards, deliver better public access through the Internet.

By David Hovenden

Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) acting president David Edwards said that many Commonwealth authorities had yet to come to grips with the record keeping challenges of the electronic age.

Mr Edwards comments follow the release by the ALRC of a draft recommendations paper as part of its review of Australia's Archives Act 1983, advocating the establishment of the National Archives of Australia (NAA).

He said the review revealed mediocre and fragmented recordkeeping is so widespread within the Federal administration that its failures are now accepted with a degree of fatalism.

The Australian National Library's single point of access Web site ( is a prototype for a national single point of access to all Commonwealth records.

"Present hard copy arrangements provide no satisfactory base for the electronic age. Archives are an invaluable public resource, which ensure accountability of the government and other official policy makers and document our history.

"But unless electronic record keeping systems are planned and managed effectively now, there will be no guarantee that any records of enduring value will be created and maintained to an acceptable standard in the future," Mr Edwards said.

The draft recommended the establishment of the NAA as an independent statutory authority to replace the present Australian Archives. It would have increased powers to set policies and standards for electronic and paper records management, which would be legally binding.

The NAA would also be able to assist private enterprise in developing records keeping technologies. To do this it would need a high level of skills within the authority and so to facilitate this it would also offer awards and scholarships for education in recordskeeping.

A copy of the draft obtained by Image & Data Manager states that the initiatives developed by the Office of Government Information Technology's (OGIT's) Shared Systems Suite were a step in the right direction. They were, however, "only a step on the road to ensuring that the Commonwealth established effective electronic records keeping systems . . . One of the crucial weaknesses of the present Act is its failure to require that consistent recordkeeping standards are issued and implemented.

This failure has cost the Commonwealth dearly in the era of paper records and unless adequate measures are taken to address it the same failure will be repeated in the electronic era," the paper states.

Mr Edwards said there was a clear need to ensure electronic records are able to be easily accessed by the public. Integrated approaches must be developed to exploit the opportunities offered by the Internet.

To this end, the report has taken into consideration the findings in two reports released by the Information Management Steering Committee (IMSC), under the auspices of OGIT, to develop a whole-of-government approach to the management of access to government information. The IMSC also recommended the use of a single entry point to government information and the development of an Australian Government Information Locater System (AusGILS). A prototype of such a device exists as the National Library of Australia's single point of access (

The draft recommendations outline how the NAA should raise its profile to promote the release of Commonwealth records, with suitable safeguards for protecting sensitive information, including information that is secret or sacred under Indigenous customary law.

The report suggests that there should also be a reduction in the barrier between "current" and "archival" records in order to encourage a more proactive response to the public release of Commonwealth records and even though many older records will remain in paper form or in proprietary electronic format, information about their existence and whereabouts should be accessible from a single electronic network.

Present arrangements that allow open access to archives after 30 years should be retained, the ALRC said. But, under the Commission's draft recommendations, the number of exempt categories to the 30-year rule would be reduced significantly.

The ALRC's Archives Act review began in August 1996, and has involved extensive community consultation, which will continue until a final report is made to the Federal Government later in the year.