Report on ‘Do tragedies lead to new ideas about managing records?’

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Two contrasting tragedies – one national and affecting a particular group of people, the other personal yet currently affecting an increasing percentage of society – formed the focus of a fascinating exploration of lessons learned and a new approach to managing records arising from tragic contexts.

Sarah Tyacke, former Keeper of Records and member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, gave a succinct summary of the Panel’s extensive work into the football disaster in 1989 which claimed 96 lives. The families of those who died and the survivors, unconvinced by the coroner’s verdict of ‘accidental death’, fought for the truth, in their eyes, to be recognised by society and the government. They fought for transparency and justice. The Panel was charged with reporting on how the full disclosure of un-redacted information – “the facts as revealed by the records” – adds to public understanding of the event. Inevitably this was neither easy for those most affected nor the Panel. New records were found, some in strange places, and others re-examined. The review and necessary interpretation of 450,000 pages of documents lead to new insight, which subsequently resulted in a different verdict of ‘unlawful killing’, and to a publicly available permanent digital archive which is much more than the final report. Sarah explored the approach taken to creating the archive, its (distributed) form, its content and the issues, given the records relate to a tragedy still affecting people.

Two particularly interesting points emerged. The issue of access to and retention of police records, which in England and Wales do not come under the Public Records Act and are not always deposited in local authority archives. Sarah was very clear that the lack of public control over police records was clear evidence of a democratic deficit. She described how the Hillsborough archive continues to be active for ongoing investigations into allegations about the Police and others, and whether crimes were committed on that fateful day. Perhaps the lessons learned will lead to police records coming within the scope of the Public Records Act as they are in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Nick Barrett’s fascinating exploration of ‘memory boxes’ and dementia began with him sharing his memory of Hillsborough, reflecting on how he might have been there but decided not to go. He went on to describe how the use of memory boxes can help those afflicted with dementia and how, in the digital era they should not just be paper-based but should include social media.  He suggested that individuals might begin assembling their own memory boxes while able to do so.

Together both speakers raised the important question of the long-term retention of case records that records managers and archivist need urgently to debate. We have only exceptionally kept them in the past, but in the wake of what would seem to be systemic abuse, not just of children but all those in care, it is what society expects. It will come at a substantial cost.

Julie McLeod

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