The Archive as a Time Machine

The ICT-industry and public sector partnership: to promote the preservation and accessibility of the European archival heritage


 by Eric Ketelaar[1]                  


Closing Speech of the DLM-Forum 2002

Barcelona, 8 May 2002




Preserving and making accessible the archival heritage means: offering people the possibility to create memories and to experience “the” past, by using the archive as a time machine to enable a time travel back and forth, archivists and administrators in the public and the private sector, in co-operation with the ICT-industry[2], have to care about the future.


In our “age of access” record keeping systems and archival institutions are moving from providing physical documents to providing access to the collective memory. In most organizations the boundaries between records and non-record material, and those between personal and institutional memory are blurring. This causes fragmentation and individualization of the organizational memory. What the risks are of an organizational memory being dependent on what individuals have stored on their laptops and PC’s, has been dramatically shown by the September 11 tragedies. Therefore organizational record keeping systems should ensure that individual and organizational memories blend together.


Many of the artefacts that in the public perception are considered to be archives, function in societal processes of accountability and evidence, just like records and archives-proper. Archives by birth and archives by baptism are not opposites, but should be seen in a perspective view, where both, at the foreground and in the background, serve to understand the past.



In the past two days we have been introduced to best practices and solutions for access and preservation of electronic information. In a remarkable way the three rapporteurs have summarized what has been achieved in the parallel sessions. The conclusions the chairman just read, are a concise summary of the DLM Forum 2002 achievements. The papers presented were a source of inspiration and will continue to stimulate and enrich theory, methodology and practice. We likewise benefitted from the demonstrations in the exhibition. We now depart to return to our research, development, and implementation in different institutional, national and international settings. But before we adjourn I ask your attention for the broader cultural framework of the partnership between the public sector at all levels and the ICT-industry. A public-private partnership reinforced at this DLM-Forum 2002, with the common goal of the preservation and accessibility of the European archival heritage. 




When, more than 30 years ago, I started as a civil servant in the ministry of Culture of The Netherlands, I was taught that, before setting to work on a case, one had to ask for the file to be retrieved from the archives. The file contained the minutes, memoranda, record copies and other records of the history of the matter. It was a source of useful precedents. The archive, the memory of the ministry, formed by generations of predecessors, had to be consulted before one could undertake any new action. In those days, one phoned to the records office downstairs and after a few minutes a messenger or a records official knocked on the door, bringing the file.


But with the passage of time, in the seventies, the interval between the phone call to the records office and the moment the file arrived on the civil servant’s desk, became longer and longer. When I began my career, the norm was three to five minutes, later on this increased to ten, fifteen minutes, even more. It was then (but also later) that I found a pattern which I will now present to you as “Ketelaar's law”. We measure the interval between the request for the file from the archives and the moment the file can be actually consulted. If that interval averages 20 minutes, then - according to Ketelaar's law - civil servants start creating their personal file. By that I mean what the Germans call Handakten - literally ‘handy records′, near at hand. In French they are called “papiers personnels de fonction”, in English “working copies”, “semi-official records” or “convenience files” - according to the Dictionary of Archival Terminology of the International Council on Archives: “documents or copies thereof, papers and/or publications kept by or for officials for their private or personal use, relating directly or indirectly to their official duties.”


This definition makes it clear that in a semi-official file are assembled all sorts of papers which are not regarded as official records. A semi-official file does not belong to the official organisational memory, but to a twilight zone: it is neither strictly private, nor strictly official. But practice is more stubborn than doctrine. Some official records do not even end up in the official file, but in the convenience file kept near at hand for use by the civil servant. The official file is thus less complete and less authentic. In the convenience file official records can be found among documents which archival theory does not consider official records, and with documents that archivists and records managers regard as non-record material. Creators and users of the file do not bother about the official definition of records. The convenience file with its varied content is an extension of a person's memory, forming the link between his or her memory and the organisational memory.


Sometimes the semi-official files have become so important that the official files can no longer give an authentic and reliable representation of what happened. During the recent investigation (commissioned by the Dutch government) of the 1995 tragedy in Srebenica (where Dutch soldiers under UN command had the “mission impossible” to control a safe area), researchers came across the semi-official convenience files on the whole case, kept by a high-ranking official in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This collection yielded essential information not to be found elsewhere.


Daily practice in public and private organisations shows a blurring of the demarcation between records and non-record material. Secondly, it shows a blurring of the boundaries between personal and institutional memory. Ketelaar‘s law is an expression of a widely felt need to have one‘s paper memory close at hand. Each of these factors influences the creation, management, and use of the archival heritage of individuals, communities, societies - indeed, the European archival heritage.




Everything is archive is a chapter in Je pense donc j’archive (I think, therefore I archive), a recent book by a French archivist, Marie-Anne Chabin.[3] What is an archive as perceived by society? The popular perception is that archives are cold, musty, dusty places that hold old records. Old records or, as in Webster’s dictionary, public records or historical documents. But archives are not only history. As articles in the press clearly demonstrate these days, society considers everything an archive – books, papers, artifacts, sound, images, geological samples – that is serious and reliable information, put in storage to be retrieved when you need it: a backup that saves what may be of value in the future. Ask any search engine the term ‘archives’ and it will yield millions of hits (Google on 16 August, 2001 24,3 million, on 21 April 2002 33,2 million - in eight months an increase with 37%!), most of which are no archives or records in the archivists’ terminology, but which are an expression of the value society attaches to keeping account of its present for its future.

Archiving, then, is not about history, but about the future. People want to get hold of the future. For many people, Anthony Smith argues the only guarantee of preservation of some form of identity is in the appeal to ‘posterity’, to the future generations. . . .only the appeal to a collective posterity offers hope of deliverance from oblivion.[4]

This explains why in our archiving society we see the compulsive creation of private records and archives, connecting the living history of individuals and families to national history.[5] Records and archives in a broad sense, just as in a convenience file. More memory, than archive: the record as memory - “O! that record is lively in my soul”, to quote Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, Vi,1, 256). Marie-Anne Chabin proposes to distinguish archives by birth from archives by baptism, the former corresponding to records and archives in the archivists’ terminology, the latter meaning those documents having no primary record status or value, which have survived and are recognized as having a value to retain a memory (or: memories).[6]



A remarkable program in the United States, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the White House Millennium Council, promotes the creation of public archives by private people, connecting their history to that of America. Collective memory, Susan Crane wrote, is ultimately located not in sites but in individuals. All narratives, all sites, all texts remain objects until they are ‘read’ or referred to by individuals thinking historically.[7]


This fits in with the conception of the man who can be regarded as the father of the notion of collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs. According to Halbwachs there is no individual memory dissociated from collective memory. He was also the first sociologist to stress that our conceptions of the past are affected by the mental images we employ to solve present problems, so that collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past in the light of the present.[8]


In collective memory it is not the facts that count, but remembrance of the past: historical facts are being transformed into myths.[9] Earlier memory metaphors, like “photographic memory”, assumed that perceptions are stored in memory as immutable traces. More recently, people use the computer as a metaphor for human memory. Both the computer and human memory allow for replacing old data by new information and for altering stored information. The human memory does not store an exact reproduction, but filters incoming information which is coded into a representation of reality. Memory not as passive storage, but as an active power. In this respect collective memory acts just like an individual‘s memory.


Until now I referred to “the” collective memory, but evidently there are as many collective memories as there are collectives and social groups. Even within one community there is interaction between various different memories.[10] What we regard as collective memory is what the members of a group, an organisation or a society want to remember. That is more than what the elite of that group appropriates as collective memory or what it enforces the group, through “politics of memory”, to view as collective memory.[11]




The past is re-created and re-lived in commemorative practices, monuments, ceremonies and other “theatres of memory”, like traditional sports and pastimes, costume parades, “retrochic” and the heritage industry- so beautifully parodied in Julien Barnes’ England, My England. [12] What they all have in common is that they allow the individual to relate directly to what he or she regards as “the” past: a personal immediacy.


But what is the past? Halbwachs opposed the mémoire collective to the mémoire historique. For Halbwachs history begins where living collective memory ends. But in history the past also lives, because, as the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga said, the past is not photographed, but re-imagined.[13] History is a social construction, it is, in fact, a special form of collective remembrance. Instead of opposing memory and history, Aleida Assmann distinguishes two modes of remembering: Funktionsgedächtnis and Speichergedächtnis - functional memory and storage memory.[14] The storage memory forms the perspective background for the functional memory: It holds additional knowledge which as memory of memories can ensure that really existing functional memories can be evaluated critically and, when necessary, be renewed or changed.[15]


The collective storage memory, according to Aleida Assmann, does not constitute collective identity as such, as functional memory does. The ever expanding storage memory keeps more information and different information which may be taken out by functional memory, and restructured and recomposed into stories, into meaning, constituting collective identities. Storage memory can be regarded as a reservoir for future functional memories, as a corrective for current functional memories. Therefore, Assmann writes, it is necessary to keep the boundaries between the two memories permeable, allowing the storage memory to act

as a context for different functional memories, more or less as their outer horizon from where the narrowed perspectives of the past may be analyzed, criticized, and, not the least, changed. [16]


It is time to draw a preliminary conclusion. Neither collective memory nor history are petrified fossils, but active forces, driven by preoccupations with the present. Italo Svevo used a beautiful metaphor when he wrote that the present is the conductor of an orchestra which is the past.[17] This can easily be grasped by current post-modern society, sometimes even more easily than by some historians and archivists. In our time people no longer believe in all-embracing ideologies and grand narratives, but in a kaleidoscope of pluralistic stories. Stories replacing histories.




But what about the archival heritage, you may ask. Halbwachs is rather vague about the question how collective memory is transmitted from one generation to another. Paul Connerton, on the other hand, deals with this question in his book How Societies Remember. He says that what Halbwachs calls social memory, is in fact communication between individuals: “To study the social formation of memory is to study those acts of transfer that make remembering in common possible.”[18]


Transfer is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about an archive, with its immediate connotation of storage, a connotation reinforced by Aleida Assmann’s concept of “storage memory”. Nevertheless archiving - all the activities from creation and management to use of records and archives - has always been directed towards transmitting human activity and experience through time and, secondly, through space. A storage memory transmits information to some later point in time. It is this quality of the archive as a time machine, that I want to stress because it is so essential in promoting the preservation and accessibility of the European archival heritage 


For many people, keeping records is identical to cleaning one’s desk, sorting and throwing away and putting one’s papers in a folder or a box. People who work on a computer save their files and make back-ups. But why do, and did, people keep their papers and computer files? Letters, bills, insurance papers and contracts all reflect an activity. In a business or organisation, paper documents and digital records are used to support the management and control of the work process. Instructions for man and machine, the enhancement of the organisation’s products and services, reporting - they all form part of the “process-bound information”, as it is called in archival science. It is the information generated by work processes that are all connected. The information is structured and recorded by these processes in such a way that it may be accessed from the context of the work processes.[19]


Records are also used as a basis to account for the results of a business. They document transactions and relations - between supplier and client, editor and author or between the committee of a society and its members. They are kept to serve as an account of these transactions or relations, and as evidence. Evidence not only in the legal sense, but also from a historical point of view, to demonstrate what has been. These two qualities of records fit into Aleida Assmann’s scheme of the two modes of memory. The functional memory contains process bound information, while the storage memory serves the evidential function:

Archives can be organised as functional or as storage memory. The former contains those documents and records that safeguard the legitimizing basis of existing power relations, the latter stores potential sources forming the basis of the historical knowledge of a culture.[20]


Archives and records as potential sources of historical knowledge, as a bridge to yesteryear or the past. That bridge is built equally by records in the professional records manager’s sense, as by other “memory-retaining objects”. Both are to be found in the civil servant’s convenience file, or in any person’s memory box. Everything is archive - not something old and forgotten, but something of value in the present and in the future. Shouldn’t we try to connect to that public perception, rather than to impose on society what archivists believe to be true? I am not suggesting to neglect the specificity of records and archives as intrinsic process information or to dispose of the evidential quality of records and archives in favour of their cultural value. But we have to take into consideration that many of the artefacts that in the public perception are considered to be archives function in societal processes of accountability and evidence, just like records and archives-proper. Archives by birth and archives by baptism are not opposites, but should be seen - like Assmann’s modes of memory - in a perspective view, where both, at the foreground and in the background, serve to understand the past.




And what about Ketelaar’s law? Is it still applicable in a digital environment? Civil servants continue to create semi-official records which are not part of the organization’s record keeping system. Personal computers, laptops and notebooks throughout an organization store databases, email and other applications kept by staff members for their personal use while carrying out functions for their employer. Several of these systems are created and used by one individual only, just as in the paper age the official kept his or her personal notes, drafts and documentation in a convenience file. Many systems on these PC’s and laptops are outside the purview of any organizational systems management and control. Many are, however, not private, but official records. So, Ketelaar’s law may be expanded with the proposition - yet to be tested - that if a civil servant (or any administrator) sitting at his or her desktop, needs to click seven times before getting access to a centrally maintained application, he or she will start creating a personal record keeping system. In doing so, the organizational memory will be further fragmented and individualized. What the risks are of an organizational memory being dependent on what individuals have stored on their laptops and PC’s, has been dramatically shown by the September 11 tragedies.


What are the solutions? Here is some food for thought while you are preparing your journey back home: six building blocks for possible strategies.


In the first place it is essential that organizational record keeping systems take into account semi-official recordkeeping by individual members of the organization: recordkeeping in the broader sense as “everything is archive”.[21] Individual and organizational memories blending together into one distributed memory.


Secondly, we have to rethink what the use of records and archives, as functional and storage memories, really is. In the past, staff kept the file close at hand, for immediate access. Access to the file meant: having the file in your hands. But in the digital age physical access is replaced by virtual access. In his book The Age of Access Jeremy Rifkin points to the transformation from a goods-producing to a services performing and experience-generating economy.[22] No longer do we buy a product, we buy access to services. “Services are being reinvented as long-term multifaceted relationships between servers and clients.”[23] Information technologies are used as relationship technologies. A cellular phone is given away for free, as an inducement to use the telecom services. The physical container becomes secondary to the unique services contained in it. The Oxford English Dictionary or the Encyclopedia Britannica have dematerialized into an on-line service. Books and journals on library shelves are giving precedence to access to services via the Internet.[24] Likewise, in record keeping systems the files may conceptually be replaced by providing a service, that is: access to a distributed archival memory. Thus making the records manager into a records relations manager or a “memory relations manager”.


Thirdly, archival institutions are moving from providing physical documents to providing access[25], from counting visits to the search room to counting hits on their website, from issuing a reader’s card as a ticket to enter the search room to issuing a customer’s card as the start of a multi-faceted relationship between client and service-providing institution. At’s website I am welcomed with recommendations for books and CD’s, based upon my browsing history and customer profile. Why doesn’t the website of my library offer such a service? Why don’t the archives use their users’ statistics and the Internet pro-actively to keep researchers informed - individually and tailormade - of new acquisitions, new finding aids, new publications, discounts and services which may interest them?


But consumers don’t ask themselves as often “What do I want to have that I don’t have already”; they are asking instead, “What do I want to experience that I have not experienced yet?” [26] In such an “experience economy”, as described by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore,[27] companies produce memories, not goods.[28] Memory has become one of the objects of the consumer society that sell well, wrote Jacques le Goff twenty years ago.[29]


This leads to my fourth proposition. Preserving and making accessible the archival heritage means: offering the possibility to create memories.[30] Archival institutions should present these memories as a historical experience, evoking a historical sensation. A small museum in Terhorne, in Friesland, The Netherlands, calls itself Ervarium, “experiencium”. There and elsewhere - I am thinking of the Yarvik museum in York where the visitor even experiences the smell of the past - a historical sensation is evoked: re-enacting, re-living the past.[31] The archive is - or should be - a place for such a re-enactment as well, a place where the gout d’archive (the taste of archive)[32] functions as a Proustian madeleine.


Archives are - and this is my fifth point - time machines enabling man to carry his thoughts, experiences and achievements through time. The archives of British Columbia present a “BC Time Machine” on Internet, but it only allows a ride back into the past. The archival time machine which I propose, rides into the future and back from the future.


To enable a time travel back and forth, archivists have to care about the future. Not only archivists: the DLM-Forum - from the first one in 1996 throughout this DLM-Forum 2002 - demonstrates clearly that the concern for digital longevity is shared by archivists and administrators in the public and the private sector. We can only achieve this effectively and efficiently through industry-standard hardware and software. That is why the contribution of the ICT-industry - called to arms by the DLM-Forum in 1999 - is so essential to ensure travel into future’s “deep time”.


Mankind requires such time machines because they offer an escape from a world in which, as Rifkin writes,

the marketing experts, advertisers, and cultural intermediaries will be ready and waiting at the gateways, offering up access to all sorts of meaningful new cultural commodities and lived experiences for the price of admission. They will prospect local cultures for fresh fragments of cultural experience that can be mined and commodified. They will make their way back into history in search of story lines for creating exciting and entertaining new experiences.[33]


To such commodification and usurpation of private and public memories, a countervailing power must be found. Access to information and knowledge will be that countervailing power. And this is my sixth and final point. Access to the collective knowledge and wisdom, as a prerequisite for civil education which is “an essential tool in re-establishing a balanced ecology between culture and commerce.”[34] This means: equal access to information, in the context of the cultural diversity of our world, empowering citizens, enabling people to use the archive as a time machine in the present, the past and the future.




This DLM Forum 2002 was the third in a series, starting in 1996. I believe it is appropriate to recognize the outstanding achievement of the man who inspired and organized the three DLM Forums: Dr. Hans Hofmann.


At the opening of the second DLM-Forum, 18 October 1999, the audience was challenged by the Secretary General of the European Commission to continue seeking ways to preserve past, present and future information, electronic and on multimedia, in a viable and accessible form.[35]  This is as true today, as it was three years ago. It is as true, as the opening words of the first DLM-Forum, 18 December 1996, that I repeat now as my final conclusion: The digital era could well depend for its development and innovation on the memory which you've brought here today and intend to carry forward to the future.[36]



[1] Eric Ketellar is the widely published author, Professor of Archivistics at the University of Amsterdam, researcher and former General State Archivist (National Archivist) of the Netherlands from 1989-1997.


[2] Information and communications technology industry.

[3] Marie-Anne Chabin, Je pense donc j’archive (L’Harmattan, Paris and Montréal 1999).


[4] Anthony D. Smith, “Towards a global culture?”, in: Mike Featherstone (ed.), Global Culture. Nationalism, globalization and modernity (Sage, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi 1990) 182 = Anthony D. Smith, “Towards a Global Culture?”, Theory, Culture & Society 7 (1990) 182.


[5] Pierre Nora, “Entre mémoire et histoire. La problématique des lieux,” in Pierre Nora (ed.), Les lieux de mémoire. I. La République  (Gallimard, Paris 1984), XXVII-XXVIII (English editions: Pierre Nora, “Between memory and history. Les lieux de mémoire,” Representations 26 (Spring 1989) 13-14; Realms of memory: rethinking the French past [on the jacket: The construction of the French past] I. Conflicts and divisions (Columbia University Press, New York 1996) 8).


[6] Chabin, Je pense donc j’archive, 67-68.


[7] Susan A. Crane, “Writing the individual back into collective memory”, American Historical Review 102 (1997) 1381.


[8] Lewis A. Coser (ed.), Maurice Halbwachs, On collective memory (University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1992) 34.


[9] Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen (C.H. Beck, München 2000, 3. Aufl.).


[10] Alon Confino, “Collective memory and cultural history: problems of method”, American Historical Review 102 (5) (December 1977) 1386-1403, esp. 1399-1403.


[11] Confino, “Collective memory”, 1393-1399. Unlike Confino, I do not restrict 'politics of memory' to Politics: any power in any community uses politics of memory.


[12] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of memory. Volume I: Past and present in contemporary culture (Verso, London/New York 1994); David Lowenthal, The heritage crusade and the spoils of history (Free Press, New York 1996).


[13] Johan Huizinga, Verzamelde werken VII (H.D. Tjeenk Willink & zoon, Haarlem 1950) 12.


[14] Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses (C.H. Beck, München 1999) 130-142.


[15] Assmann, Erinnerungsräume, 136: “Es hält ein Zusatzwissen bereit, welches als Gedächtnis der Gedächtnisse dafür sorgen kann, daß real existierende Funktionsgedächtnisse kritisch relativiert und gegebenenfalls erneuert oder verändert werden können.”


[16] Assmann, Erinnerungsräume, 141: “als Kontext der verschiedenen Funktionsgedächtnisse gewissermaßen deren Außenhorizont, von dem aus die verengten Perspektiven auf die Vergangenheit relativiert, kritisiert, und nicht zuletzt: verändert werden können.”


[17] Assmann, Erinnerungsräume, 17.


[18] Connerton, 39.


[19] Theo Thomassen, “A first introduction to archival science”, to be published in Archival science 2 (2002); Frederick C.J. Ketelaar, “The benefit of archives”, Annual report 2001 Koninklijke Brill NV (Brill, Leiden 2001) 59-60.


[20] Assmann, Erinnerungsräume, 409: “Archive können sowohl als Funktions- wie als Speichergedächtnis organisiert sein; im einen Falle enthalten sie jene Dokumente und Beweisstücke, die die Legitimationsgrundlage bestehender Machtverhältnisse absichern, im anderen Falle bergen sie potentielle Quellen, die die Grundlage des historischen Wissens einer Kultur ausmachen.”


[21] Thomas A Finholt, “The electronic office”, in: Cary L. Cooper - Denise M. Rousseau (eds.), Trends in organizational behavior 4 (Wiley, Chichester 1997) 29-41.


[22] Jeremy Rifkin, The age of access. The new culture of hypercapitalism where all of life is a paid-for experience (Tarcher/Putnam, New York 2000).


[23] Rifkin, The age of access, 85.


[24] Rifkin, The age of access, 76-93, 100.


[25] Angelika Menne-Haritz, “Access - the reformulation of an archival paradigm”, Archival science 1 (2001) 57-82.


[26] Rifkin, The age of access, 145.


[27] Joseph B. Pine - James Gilmore, The experience economy. Work is theatre and every business a stage (Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge MA 1999).


[28] Rifkin, The age of access, 145.


[29] Jacques Le Goff, Histoire et mémoire (Gallimard, Paris 1988) 170: “la mémoire étant devenue un des objets de la société de consommation qui se vendent bien.”


[30] Menne-Haritz, “Access”, 59.


[31] Simulating the past can have negative effects as well: Kevin Walsh, The representation of the past. Museums and heritage in the post-modern world (Routledge, London and New York 1992).


[32] Arlette Farge, Le goût de l'archive (Editions du Seuil, Paris 1989).


[33] Rifkin, The age of access, 217.


[34] Rifkin, The age of access, 254-255.


[35] Proceedings of the DLM-Forum on electronic records. European citizens and electronic information: the memory of the Information Society. Brussels, 18-19 October 1999, INSAR Supplement IV (2000) 15.


[36] Proceedings of the DLM-Forum on electronic records. Brussels, 18-20 December 1996, INSAR Supplement II (1997) 16.