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Opening and Welcome

Professor Brian Anderson

Australian Academy of Science

Gavan McCarthy, ladies and gentlemen, in the name of the Australian Academy of Science Iíd like very much to welcome you all here. Itís a lovely, fine, late autumn Canberra day. I hope you can appreciate the lovely surroundings outside, and really the dignity of this theatre and perhaps, in your time in Canberra if youíre a stranger here, enjoy a little bit of the lovely city.

I know among you there are people from Asia, central and western Europe, the United States and New Zealand, so this is truly an international gathering and I am sure that many of you will want to go home with lovely members, with lovely memories of Canberra. Conferences like this only become possible when there are generous sponsors and supporters behind the conference, and I am aware that in this case the National Archives of Australia, formerly the Australian Archives, are involved, the Australian Research Council, the Academy of Science itself and the Australian Society of Archivists, and the British Council has also funded two delegates here from the UK and thatís a fine initiative also.

Now as you would have gathered from Gavan, my discipline is about 180 degrees, or I thought it was, away from archiving. I have never thought of myself particularly as a historian or a custodian or anything like that, but in reflecting on the theme of the conference and what you are going to talk about in the next couple of days, I did really find some points of contact, not just professionally, but in my non-professional life. I remember being really struck by an article that I read a few years ago that had a detailed discussion of the quartermaster records of the occupying Roman Army in the UK that was there more now than two thousand years ago. It struck me as really remarkable that these records were still around, and the article didnít just talk about the existence of the records, but it drew many conclusions about the way the Roman Army had worked, from these records of the issue of socks and eating utensils and so on to the Roman Soldiers.

About two or three years ago I was in Switzerland at a place called Montreux and there is a very nice castle there in which a number of very famous people were imprisoned at some stage of their lives and so I took a tour of the castle, and I was told that a hundred years ago when they were doing one of their many renovations, they turned up the original architectural records of the castle and all the intervening architectural records, and those dated back to the tenth century. Well, one expects the Swiss to be careful about such things, and perhaps it was careless that they lost the records for a hundred years but I was still impressed that these records did go back, effectively a thousand years in the history of this castle, and people had been careful preserving them before, I guess, there was a Swiss Society of Archivists.

In thinking about archiving and the theme that archivists work with records, it was pointed out to me by Gavan and I guess this is probably all too obvious to you, that the context is just as important as the content. The way I thought of that was to think that the importance of a scientific discovery, besides its utility, is its novelty or the surprisingness of the notion, and that measure of the extent to which its surprising, of course, is a measure that is derived by relating the new knowledge to the pre-existing knowledge. That quintessentially I think captures the point that the content only becomes valued and fully understood when it is related to the pre-existing content of the subject area to which it relates, and I guess thatís a view I would gather has been acquiring more and more currency in discussions of archives and perhaps is driving the way you approach your subject.

I also have come to learn that people who use archives are, on occasions, able to deduce new scientific knowledge and I understand there is an example in section six of the conference here where youíre talking about using the information held in records which describes some scientific work on AIDS that was greatly facilitated or even led to a breakthrough as a result of searching the records and thatís a very fine example of the community benefit you might say of your activity.

As an engineer whoís very close to information technologies I can also reflect on the great technical challenges that are facing archivists. It seems to me that the newer computer technologies should lend themselves to some form of automated intelligent indexing of what is in archives and allow the assemblage on a automatic basis, in the end because your material will simply be too great to do otherwise, the assemblage on a automatic basis of linking capability and the creation of a readily searchable database. That sort of thing is very challenging from a computer science point of view and I can see that there would be great potential from marrying that sort of technology with the use and generation and preservation of archives. Data visualisation, which you will see at the ANU, is very important but I believe there would be more to it than that.

Well I think Australia has probably been one of the leaders, it has certainly been up with the top of the pack in bringing technology to bear on archives so I do hope that what has been done in this country can be transmitted else where and also that we in this country can learn something from our visitors and I do wish you in the next two days great intellectual stimulation, a developing of an understanding of each others work patterns and in general terms, every success. Thank you.

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Published by: Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb
Comments or questions to: ASAPWeb (
Prepared by: Helen Morgan and Sandra Peel
Graphics by Lisa Cianci
Date modified: 7 October 1999