For the record

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 August, 2008, 12:00am

Let me make a prediction. Among the many jobs that will grow in the future is that of the archivist. This is because it is a knowledge-economy job and, as we demand greater insight into why things are the way they are, we need to have records properly compiled to give sense and context to what happened in the past. Governments, companies, organisations and communities will all be hiring more archivists.

Archives are the non-current records of individuals, groups, institutions, governments and public bodies that contain information of enduring value. These include all kinds of documents, photographs, films, video and sound recordings, computer tapes, as well as video and disks. Archival records are the products of everyday activity. We use them both for their administrative value and for purposes other than those for which they were created. Archives help us construct our history, whether on an individual, a family, a business or organisation, a group, an industry, a region or a period of time.

Beyond history, archives of hospital records can help the study of patterns of diseases; and those of companies can help the study of business evolution, as well as enable a specific company to draw on materials for its brand-building and even design of new products and services. I discovered during a recent sojourn to Southern California that its local automobile association has two professional archivists and its records provide invaluable insights into how the region has changed. Its records are also being used by schools for educational purposes. Thus, archives benefit society at large, even people who have never directly used them.

The archivist's job is to establish and maintain control over records of enduring value. Their work involves selection, a highly skilled process that requires an understanding of the historical context in which the records were created, the uses for which they were intended, and their relationships to other sources. The archivists arrange and describe the records according to international standards and practices, ensure the preservation of the records for the long term, and assist others who want to access the records for study and research. To do their jobs, archivists need to manage archives well. The better their work, the easier it will be for people to access that knowledge. That is why archives are of enormous value to society.

In light of Hong Kong's growing interest in heritage, we must invest in preserving and maintaining our archives. As far as the public records of government and public bodies are concerned, this must be a policy priority. The authorities should be compelled to increase their capacity to collect and organise records with an eye to safeguarding Hong Kong's collective knowledge. For example, post-1997, what is the government doing with the first chief executive office's records? Have the files been sent to the Public Records Office and will they become publicly available after a certain period of time so researchers can study them?

Before 1997, the governors' files were sent to Britain where they will become available after 30 years. As for public bodies such as the Hospital Authority, Housing Authority, Urban Renewal Authority and Monetary Authority, for example, there does not seem to be a standard way for them to archive their records with an eye to the future. Surely, this is a major gap in not only good governance but also collective knowledge. One reason has to do with Hong Kong's lack of archival legislation requiring proper records and archives management of the entire public sector. The current administrative process does not impose a legal duty on all public officials to properly handle records of enduring value. Hong Kong is out of step here with Macau and the mainland.

Other statutory institutions, such as the stock exchange and the MTR Corporation should also consider looking into creating proper archives, as they have valuable records that are important to the whole community. They also have the means to get on with it expeditiously.

The longer we wait, the more records may be lost.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange