Why Archives and Records in Science, Technology and Medicine?
New imperatives for intellectual, commercial and corporate success
Notes to a talk presented at Monash IVF (Epworth Hospital),
31 October 1995.
Monash IVF has become a household name in Melbourne and is widely known outside of Victoria. I do not know much of the details of the history of Monash IVF so that is not what I am going to talk about; but like many
other technologically and/or scientifically-based organisations
operating in the 1990s, you are probably trying to come to terms
with the requirements on you both individually and as a corporation
to account for your activities.
I read in New Scientist recently an article by Jeremy Burgess titled 'Always looking forward to tomorrow ...' (9 September 1995, pp. 46-7) where he raised the age-old debating point that scientists have no need of the past, they are always looking to the future and the next development; they are only interested in the most recent literature. The implication of the very narrow thesis he proposed was that the past, history,
and all the records that went to support that history, were of little value and that scientists should not be concerned about such things - that is not there function!
I want to approach this issue from another perspective and argue
that scientists in the past, but perhaps even more so now in the
1990s, are absolutely dependent on their records for:
- the success of their investigations;
- the justification for their continuing research programs;
- the claims they make on intellectual property rights (patents,
copyright, etc.); and
- the management of businesses that stem from their research developments.
In the 1990s, there are three major differences that are affecting
activities in science, medicine and technology:
The major impact of these three forces is that modern organisations
are having significant problems in retaining Corporate Knowledge
- that core commodity that is only now being valued and allows
organisations and corporations to function effectively and profitably.
- electronic records, information and office systems;
- a much higher requirement for demonstrable accountability; and
- significant changes in patterns of employment and mobility of
In what remains of this talk, I will discuss where the Australian
Science Archives Project came from, why it was set up, its present
structure, and something of our aims, hopes and objectives. Following
that I will relay some cautionary tales from a number of our clients.
The Australian Science Archives Project
The Australian Science Archives Project (ASAP) started with the
proposition that science, technology and medicine make a huge
contribution to our culture, and that understanding that cultural
heritage is a critical part of our national cultural development.
As Tim Sherratt, the manager of our Canberra Office (which is
based at the Australian Academy of Science), has published on
An understanding of Australia's scientific heritage might help prise open the grimly locked jaws of narrow-minded pragmatism.
The portrait of the Australian who merely responds to circumstances
could be replaced by one of the imaginative thinker, the long-term
strategist, the creative spirit, the visionary. The history of Australian science can provide a reservoir of images and examples to build this new identity, and establish a creative environment for our future.
A potted history of the beginnings ...
ASAP was formed in 1985 in the Department of History and Philosophy
of Science (HPS) at the University of Melbourne. We struggled for funds and tools, and 'lived' out of one small, shared office in HPS. ASAP developed RASA (Register of Science Archives in Australia) through DEET funding. This led to the development of our database records processing tools .... and the expansion of the business to include both records management
and archival projects and the integration of the two. In July 1995, ASAP moved to a suite of offices with street frontage in Carlton.
Projects of note
- Electricity Supply Industry Reform Unit (ESIRU) -
Exemplifies the much of what I mentioned at the beginning of my talk: an organisation made up of few core staff and lots of hired-guns
... a organisation setup for a specific function which, when achieved,
will be closed down. However, the records that underpin all
the policy development and decisions that were taken as a result
of their work will have ramifications for decades. The need
to ensure the preservation of corporate knowledge is seen by ESIRU
- Generation Victoria;
- Hazelwood Power Corporation Records Management;
- Hazelwood Poer Station Archives/Morweel Mine Archives;
- Loy Yang Power Ltd;
- Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens;
- Southern Hydro;
- The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research;
- CSL Parkville and CSL Bioplasma Broadmeadows; and
- Currency Note Reseach and Development Project (CSIRO Plastic Banknote Project), etc.
But what are records?
(Isn't it just information management?)
Records and evidence! Without evidence there is nothing that can
be sustained, justified or proved.
- Why have records become so special?
- What makes them different from information?
- Why have electronic documents become such a problem?
It is not enough for an organisation or an individual to store
information (no matter how fancy the retrieval system may be).
They must keep records that document their activities.
For example, a document held on a PC is not a record unless it has
been associated with some transaction or act, and that act has
been incorporated into or in extricably linked to that document.
What is happening elsewhere?
CSIRO: are running a major study on Laboratory notebooks,
the implications for safeguarding/ownership of scientific output,
and the extension of this to electronic 'lab notebooks'.
Ernst and Young (Boston), Centre for Business Innovation:
are running a 'Managing Knowledge of the Organisation' program
which looks at knowledge, information and records as a key strategic
resource. Covers issues and concepts such as intellectual capital, organisational learning, knowledge transfer, and information ecology, etc.
Electronic Records Consortium (USA): focussing on major drug companies, chemical companies and others who deal with issues relating electronic records and their relationships with the FDA, EPA, the Patent
Office and intellectual property attorneys.
ICA and IUHPS: holding a joint meeting on the impact of electronic records in science in Liege, May 1997.