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EGABE workshop, Mexico

​EGABE workshop, Mexico

Archives, Citizenship and Interculturalism

The archives held by the City of London are world renowned and it is important that they, and the good governance for their preservation and use, are recognised and acknowledged on the international stage. Recently Tim Harris, Assistant Director Access at London Metropolitan Archives was privileged to attend and participate in the Annual Conference of the International Council on Archives (ICA)  - the UNESCO recognised body for archives - which was held in Mexico City in November 2017 jointly with the Association of Latin American Archivists (ALA). It received high profile backing from the Mexican Government with the Interior Minister speaking at the Opening Ceremony.

The ALA/ICA Conference

Over 600 delegates from 83 countries attended the conference which had 12 strands: Archives and Art Creation; Academic Archives and Projects; Archives, Accountability, Access to Information and Personal Data Protection; Archives, Environment and Natural Disasters; Big Data; Copyright and Intellectual Property; Human Rights; Illicit Trafficking of Documentary Heritage; Information Governance;  Digital Preservation and Information Systems; Interculturalism and Original Cultures; and Regional Cooperation.

It was fascinating to find out more about international projects with which the ICA was involved. Some of these projects LMA is already connected to, for instance via the UNESCO Memory of the World project, and with others LMA is not a partner but needs to know the results, like initiatives on digital preservation such as InterPARES which is now focussing on records stored in networked online environments.

The combination of longer keynote speakers together with shorter presentations on panel discussions and workshops made for a stimulating environment in which topical themes could be discussed both inside and outside the conference sessions. Perhaps the best known keynote speaker was Vinton G Cerf, the Vice-President of Google, who confirmed what most archivists knew about the long-term preservation of digital information, especially the need to be pro-active in establishing systems now before it’s too late.

The issue of human rights is one with which the international archive community engages far more passionately than the domestic UK archive scene. The need to maintain the archival record with integrity and a high degree of transparency is not shared by all governments so it was interesting to find out more of what was being done by the Human Rights working group of ICA and hear from long-term champions of human rights like Nobel peace prize nominee Frank La Rue. He rather chillingly reminded the audience that the fact that a duplicate copy of a file existed in a vault in Switzerland made it less likely that a policeman in Guatemala would be murdered.

Disaster planning and prevention of future disasters was high on the agenda at many sessions. The international archive community is responding to the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean and Central America in the late summer of 2017. Many small countries are faced with the huge task of recovering lost buildings which formerly housed archives and indeed the archives themselves. Rita Tjien Fooh from Surinam spoke of the extent of damage in the region and the need for a coordinated response (to which ICA has already reacted through its expert groups and the formation of a relief fund). Similar issues are being faced urgently by small Pacific island nations for whom the threat of rising sea levels via global warming is a present day reality; and indeed in Mexico where the September 2017 earthquake severely damaged archive buildings in Puebla.


My own involvement in the Conference started two days before when on a Saturday afternoon I chaired the annual meeting of the Section on Local, Municipal and Territorial Archives, as well as meeting with the Chairs of other ICA sections in the morning. My Sunday morning included attending the Executive Board of ICA before delivering a workshop session to an international audience on fire safety systems in archive buildings, alongside the National Archivist of Sri Lanka and a former LMA colleague Jonathan Rhys-Lewis. These meetings were held at the Archivo General de la Nacion - a former panopticon prison where the cells acted as strongrooms until 2016. As a member of ICA’s Expert Group on Archive Buildings I was given a tour of the adjoining brand new archive facilities including 80 new strongrooms, with climatic controls powered by solar panels on the roof, as well as state of the art conservation and digitisation facilities. The old prison building will now become a museum to commemorate its use as a notorious penitentiary and a famous archive.

International Council on Archives, Mexico strongrooms

​Archivo General de la Nacion, former prison cell strongrooms

My two other papers to the Conference were on the provision of appropriate access to data-protected archives at LMA where the work of the archive-based Social Worker and the citizenship work of the Development team were presented (in the main conference hall simultaneously translated into Spanish and French); and on the many partnerships LMA embraces in order to achieve greater results beyond the walls of the archives, for instance I mentioned 22 of the ongoing 53 projects, referring to the KinoVan, the Digital Panopticon, and Layers of London. Sharing the platform with me were Chinese, Mexican, Australian, Danish and Dutch participants. On a session on partnerships it was fitting that the Head of the European branch of Ancestry was in the audience as LMA had just renewed its long-term partnership.


As ever there is more to a conference than just the advertised sessions and so there were interesting discussions to be had on city archives with the National Archivist of Iran, and on a similar theme with the National Archivist of the Cameroon. It was good to continue the dialogue on sporting archives with our colleagues in the ICA Sport Section on how we can continue the Sporting Cities project about Olympic archives.

Our Mexican hosts were very hospitable and eager to share news, views and ideas. In stark contrast to the image portrayed by some neighbouring countries, Mexico has a strong cultural identity and an excellent track record in preserving its cultural history as could be seen from the superb National Museum of Anthropology and the very accessible remains of Templo Mayor. I also managed to meet with the archivist of Mexico City and visit his archives in the heart of the colonial city. It was heartwarming to discover the depth of the commitment to preserving the archives in challenging circumstances (and the hand-drawn cartoons to remind archive staff about storing items correctly were both instructive and entertaining).


I would like to thank the City of London Corporation for permitting me to attend and speak on behalf of London Metropolitan Archives and City archives. The archives held by the City of London are world renowned and it is important that they, and the good governance for their preservation and use, are recognised and acknowledged on the international stage. It was certainly a high point in my year, and not just because the conference was held at a venue 2500m above sea level!

09 January 2018
Last Modified:
10 January 2018