Thousands of hours of archives could be lost by 2025: NAA

Dominic Giannini 31 July 2020 34
The National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia are racing against the clock to digitise and back up millions of documents and hours of magnetic tape before 2025. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Thousands of tapes and recordings from Australia’s history and the national record could be lost within the next five years because of a lack of resourcing and staff at the National Archives of Australia (NAA), according to the Assistant Director-General of Collection Management, Steven Fox.

He said there are more than 220,000 hours of tapes and millions of pages of archival documents – including 850,000 World War II service records – that need to be digitised before 2025, which is when the NAA will face a losing battle to preserve these records.

“One of the great challenges with a lot of that magnetic tape is that there is no quick way of doing it. Every hour of tape takes at least an hour to digitise,” Mr Fox told Region Media.

“Given that we do not have endless resources, that is the great challenge [ahead of] the 2025 deadline, which is the point where technical obsolescence hits home with all the magnetic tape.

“That is the date that was agreed where the age of the skills that are in the workforce and when the equipment – none of which is being manufactured now – lasts until.”

Most of the tapes held at the National Archives storage facilities are broadcasts from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but some date from the 50s. They cover everything from state election reporting, Commonwealth Games coverage and ANZAC Day marches to documentaries, grand finals, state sports leagues and even Countdown episodes.

There are also tapes from events that may not have seen the light of day in decades, if at all, such as Government Committee hearings and communications from within Government agencies.

All of it will be made publically available and will help form a more complete picture of Australia’s history and development.

Mr Fox said the importance of these artefacts became evident when the Palace letters were released and Australians gained greater insight into our political history 45 years after the fact.


READ MORE: Palace letters reveal Queen was not told about Kerr’s dismissal plans


“There is definitely classified material, but by the time it is made public it is unclassified or we go through a process of assessing it to determine if it can be fully opened or open with exemptions,” he said.

“But there is a backlog. In broad figures, we get 40,000 requests, and we can process 20,000 of them. We are not saying give us more money, there is a pandemic on for God’s sake – we have to be realistic and pragmatic about it.”

However, Mr Fox put the figure at $20 million to tackle the entire magnetic tape collection by 2025 and get to a point where the NAA would be comfortable saying they have done a proper assessment and will not lose any of that material.

“It does not have to necessarily be resourced in-house, but the more fragile material, the more tricky material, we have some great skills in-house that have worked with [half-inch tape] for a long time and know its peculiarities,” Mr Fox said.

For more information, visit the National Archives of Australia.

Assistant Director-General of Collection Management Steven Fox

Assistant Director-General of Collection Management Steven Fox says the NAA will face a losing battle to digitise records from 2025. Photo: Michelle Kroll.


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34 Responses to Thousands of hours of archives could be lost by 2025: NAA
Peter Theunissen Peter Theunissen 12:21 am 04 Aug 20

Sounds like lack of concern and responsibility by everyone that has wirked there. Only have 5 years to digitize 40+ year old tapes! Did they take 40 years of RDOs?

Heather Rattenbury Heather Rattenbury 4:33 pm 03 Aug 20

Put the call out... there are probably 100’s of people out there that could help with this

Ray Adams Ray Adams 3:43 pm 03 Aug 20

Employment opportunities for jobseekers.

John Moulis John Moulis 12:09 pm 03 Aug 20

I take the so-called race to digitise magnetic tape by 2025 with a grain of salt. That deadline is given as the tapes will supposedly disintegrate by then.

When I read this story I remembered my own collection in a long forgotten place in the house. I got the reel to reel tapes out and also the Sony TC-510 2 tape recorder which I haven’t accessed since 1992. I found the earliest tape I had, a 1963 Maxell tape with recordings of us as little kids. The tape recorder still worked perfectly and the tape played without a hitch.

I realise that my own situation cannot be compared to the NAA, but these reports of magnetic tape suddenly disintegrating after a number of years are greatly exaggerated.

Shane Westmore Shane Westmore 10:06 am 03 Aug 20

i'm a former archivist with the NFSA. i moved to Canberra to study archive/records/document management (the degree no longer exists due to low demand). i applied for jobs with NAA which was my 1st choice out of uni & i couldn't even get an interview, NAA & NFSA were the 2 main organisations i chose my degree for but there was little to no work for me (i was actually told to go to CIT, and i had a bachelor's degree!!), then moved to Sydney to work with the NSW govt archive & got out of public service as the pay was too low & engineering records management was paying much more (still is & i've worked there for 12 years). i would love to go back & work for NAA but the funding just isn't there. archives have sadly never been considered important to the federal government.

Alex Elliott Alex Elliott 9:59 am 03 Aug 20

Do they have a volunteer plan? Surely the community would love to get involved and rally around to get this done.

    Tarz Lam Tarz Lam 12:50 pm 03 Aug 20

    Someone has to manage and supervise those volunteers.

    Alex Elliott Alex Elliott 1:27 pm 03 Aug 20

    Tarz Lam Of course! There are some government bodies that have good volunteer programs so might be good for Archives to setup something similar.

    Tarz Lam Tarz Lam 1:30 pm 03 Aug 20

    Alex Elliott of course it's a great idea, but more $$$ in the age of efficiency dividends is unlikely to happen. Plus there would have to be enough hardware to support such a program.

    Alex Elliott Alex Elliott 1:34 pm 03 Aug 20

    Tarz Lam Money is saved in using volunteers and you'd only take on volunteers who had equipment to do the scanning / digitising so no new hardware would be needed.

    Tarz Lam Tarz Lam 1:40 pm 03 Aug 20

    Alex Elliott the software they use and some of the equipment they use is very specialised, but OK.

    Alex Elliott Alex Elliott 1:49 pm 03 Aug 20

    Tarz Lam Ah ok that's good to know. So you're saying my little pocket scanner isn't going to cut it? ;) Seriously though hopefully we can start from the point of view of what can volunteers do to assist with getting things done.

    Tarz Lam Tarz Lam 2:00 pm 03 Aug 20

    Plus they would never allow materials to be removed from the Archives, if this is what your business plan depends on. Seriously though, you don't think the idea of using volunteers hasn't been floated before? 🙂

    Alex Elliott Alex Elliott 4:16 pm 03 Aug 20

    Tarz Lam I'm all about finding solutions, getting things done, and finding reasons to move forward so all ideas are welcome.

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 9:17 am 03 Aug 20

“Greater insight”? Don’t think so, Steven. Fricker pre-briefed Murdoch media, was selectively monarchy-protective in his presentation.

Spin has won easily. Many people buy the Palace-Fricker-Twomey fib, that the Letters “disprove” Palace involvement. As John Menadue dissents, they rather prove the opposite. Why does anyone think Elizabeth and NAA locked them up in the first place?

When even “Archives” suppress evidence and spin facts, forgive me, if I despair of the Respect N Expect public service under Morrison.

Coralee Flood Coralee Flood 8:50 am 03 Aug 20

Although taking up a lot of space, paper seems to be the more reliable form of retaining archives as technological formats keep changing resulting in previously stored data requiring continual updating. Just an observation...

    Emma Davis Emma Davis 7:44 pm 03 Aug 20

    And you are 100% correct!

    Trelawney Williams Trelawney Williams 8:10 pm 04 Aug 20

    Except audio and video are less useful in paper format...?

    Coralee Flood Coralee Flood 8:11 pm 04 Aug 20

    Trelawney Williams wasn't thinking past docs, yes you're right.

    Trelawney Williams Trelawney Williams 8:33 pm 04 Aug 20

    Coralee Flood in theory, paper sounds epic but the cost of storage is pretty pricy when you total it over the years. Ideally programs/systems could auto convert “born digital”/newer documents to the latest format etc so it’s just the older records to deal with. It’s hard to predict where technology will go- we have many records on dot matrix paper where the ink is very faded 😩

    Coralee Flood Coralee Flood 9:06 pm 04 Aug 20

    Ill bet all the old typed documents and carbon copies are still legible though. It's difficult I agree. I have similar problems at home! I have some old super8 home movies, slides, videos, etc that I need to convert and have hundreds of photos to digitise. I have purchased a slide to digital converter which works quite well but need to see a professional for the movies and videos.

Mathew Ryan Mathew Ryan 11:41 pm 02 Aug 20

South Australia will still have the technology in 2025. It will be cutting edge for them then. 😎

    Keith Alderson Keith Alderson 7:31 am 03 Aug 20

    This will cost $20mil to do in Canberra. SA will claim they can do it for 10 and 6.

Patrizia Berti Patrizia Berti 11:26 pm 02 Aug 20

Just create new jobs for people to do the work

Jillian Brankin Jillian Brankin 9:09 pm 02 Aug 20

Yes wasting money on the AWM, start looking after some of the other places that are just as important and save our history.

Matt Frawley Matt Frawley 7:16 pm 02 Aug 20

There's probably retired people with the needed skills who may like to volunteer some time helping out

    Tracy Bell Tracy Bell 10:51 pm 02 Aug 20

    Matt Frawley I would do it. It's not unheard of to use volunteers. When I was researching my thesis the NSW archives asked me to catalogue the boxes I wanted to access for research. I was grateful!

    Stephanie Ciempka Stephanie Ciempka 6:31 am 03 Aug 20

    Matt Frawley - we in the profession - Records & Information would be only to happy to assist in volunteering.

Mal Briggs Mal Briggs 7:01 pm 02 Aug 20

$20 million to save historical records can't be found.

How much are we spending expanding the war memorial... Or better yet, on new weapons to ensure there will be future wars to memorialize?

Margaret Dudley Margaret Dudley 6:46 pm 02 Aug 20

Why not use some of that COVID recovery money to employ some people to do the data entry. Win, win

    Souhair Naoum Souhair Naoum 10:38 pm 03 Aug 20

    Margaret Dudley love the idea and it can be done from home 👍

James Ireland James Ireland 6:31 pm 02 Aug 20

Susan get amongst it. Oh... wait

Karen York Karen York 6:20 pm 02 Aug 20

Shame the Archives isn’t funded appropriately. It would be useful for Australian heritage, if the government would redirect a portion of the $500 million going to dressing up the Australian War Memorial.

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