NARA and the International Council on Archives

The National Archives and Records Administration participates in the International Council on Archives (ICA) to share ideas and strategies with our peer national archives around the world, to engage with the global archival profession, and to provide support to archives in countries that are beginning to develop a stronger recordkeeping culture. We’re looking forward to ICA’s 2021 Virtual Conference, “Empowering Knowledge Societies,” to be held October 25–28.

The ICA was established by UNESCO in 1948 after advocacy by the then-Archivist of the United States for the purpose of collaborating on recordkeeping problems in post-World War II Europe. (Read more about ICA’s founding in this 2017 post on International Archives Day, and follow the link to read Archivist of the United States Solon Buck’s 1946 address to the Society of American Archivists, “The Archivist’s ‘One World’” for his influential argument for international collaboration.)  

Over the years, the ICA has encompassed additional types of archives and archivists in all parts of the world, becoming a larger and more diverse organization. ICA is organized into regional branches, as well as sections for particular types of archives or materials (religious collections or audio-visual collections, for example). It hosts a Forum of National Archivists for institutions like NARA and a Forum of Professional Associations for organizations like the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

Central to ICA’s professional program is the Programme Commission, which coordinates the professional content of the bi-annual conference or congress, the ICA expert groups, and professional projects of the branches and sections.

NARA’s External Affairs Liaison, Meg Phillips, will be taking office in October as ICA’s Vice President for Programmes, a position in which she will manage the Programme Commission. Her new role will ensure even closer ongoing communication between NARA, ICA, and the international archives community.

In addition to Meg’s involvement, NARA’s Deputy Executive for Archival Operations in Research Services, Chris Naylor, has been serving on the ICA Expert Group against Theft, Trafficking, and Tampering, contributing expertise from NARA’s experience in holdings protection and the Archival Recovery Program. These issues and many others are shared by archives all over the world; with an international market in stolen records, it is important for archives to collaborate on solutions.

National archives have also been focusing energy on building new programs and relationships to better serve indigenous communities. Countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Norway are developing practices that NARA can learn from as we also strengthen our engagement with communities we have underserved in the past.  

In light of our current involvement in ICA, it is interesting to reread then-Archivist Solon Buck’s 1946 description of how a hypothetical future international council on archives might be structured. Buck’s essay was so influential that today’s ICA is recognizable as the same council he advocated for then. We are all grateful for Buck’s vision.

From “The Archivist’s ‘One World’,” by Solon Buck:

The nature of any proposed international archives organization deserves careful consideration. What shall be the basis of representation? If it is to be non-governmental, as seems desirable, the selection of delegates by national governments is ruled out. If there were in each country national associations of archivists such as the Society of American Archivists, these associations might constitute the membership and select the delegations to international meetings. But this is the case in only a few countries. Archival institutions might be members and send their delegates. But this, strictly interpreted, would leave the associations unrepresented as such, might leave out the general archival administrations in certain countries, and certainly would leave out many individuals competent in the field of archives. Some combination seems desirable. Perhaps all archival associations, regional, national, or local, and all archival administrations or institutions, governmental or private, might be members with the right to send voting delegates to formal congresses. I believe that there should also be provision for individual members entitled to receive publications and other literature, to attend meetings, and to participate in other activities. The organization, however, should be something more than an association of individuals speaking only for themselves; it should, I believe, be a genuine international council, with its members speaking for established associations and institutions. 

This is a recognizable description of the ICA today.

Although living in the pandemic’s virtual world has been difficult for all of us, the decision to have ICA’s 2021 conference online makes this the easiest year ever to catch up with the latest developments at archives around the world and learn something about ICA. Perhaps we’ll see some of you later in October at ICA’s Virtual Conference, Empowering Knowledge Societies!

Mural outside the National Archives of Cameroon, which hosted the ICA conference in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Meg Phillips)

“Les Archives, c’est nous
C’est notre vie
C’est notre histoire
C’est notre devenir” 

The archives are us
It’s our life
It’s our history
It’s our future.