'Democracy and Rights in a Digital Age' by Richard Ovenden

Speech at Campaign for Records Launch, Palace of Westminster
Wednesday 18 January 2023


Lords, ladies and gentlemen, many thanks indeed for inviting me back to Westminster to join you for the launch of this initiative. It is not just an important moment. It is, I feel, both vital and urgent that we are here, at the heart of our government and our legislature, to highlight the critical importance of records. I would like to thank the Archives and Records Association and the Information and Records Management Society for developing the campaign, and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History for hosting this event.

I would like to say a few words to highlight the social importance of the preservation of, and provision of access to, records. Although, like my friend and colleague Laura Millar, I sometimes think we might be better using a different term – perhaps ‘evidence’ might be more powerful and instructive.

I was lucky enough to work in Parliament in the 1980s – in the Library of the House of Lords – at a time when digital information was just beginning to transform society. It was interesting and occasionally amusing to introduce some of their Lordships to new-fangled technological devices. I remember being on duty in the library when Lord Hailsham – just after he had stopped being Lord Chancellor, and no longer had a team of staff to help him – came into the Queen’s Room in the library and walked slowly around a large and scary looking machine with lot of buttons on it. "Is one permitted to use the photocopier?" he announced to the room, though perhaps addressed in my general direction. One of the other peers present piped up, "The question is, Quentin, is one capable of using the photocopier?"

Things have moved on somewhat since those heady days. We are all very comfortable with tech devices, and we now live in a world saturated in digital information, where data is generated by individuals at an astonishing scale. In fact, humans are now being outstripped by machines – by the internet of things – in the quantity of information produced, and at an ever-increasing rate. 

Since the development of the internet, and in particular since the invention of the semantic web, we have seen society shift the bulk of its creation of knowledge to a relatively small number of platforms owned and maintained by the ‘big tech’ companies, what my colleague at Oxford, Professor Timothy Garton-Ash, calls ‘the private superpowers’. Their dominant position is maintained by  harnessing the unpaid labour that we all give through our online behaviour. Our searches, ‘likes’, posts, online purchases, are tracked, profiled and sold every single day, by the ‘private superpowers’. 

This poses a huge challenge for us all. The tech industry has increasing power and control over this data generated by all of us every time we go online (and when we aren’t even aware of it). The financial power this dominance gives them allows big tech to innovate at a pace that the public sector struggles to keep up with. Regulation often lags behind the rapidity of change in the industry, and archives and libraries are no different. I have argued in the pages of the FT and elsewhere for a ‘memory tax’ to be levied on the profits of the tech industry to fund the preservation and fair access to digital records. Colleagues: we need to think more broadly across the policy landscape than regulation alone – the knowledge infrastructure of our society must be protected. Like a safe water supply, society needs to be able to rely on a safe reservoir of knowledge, one that is not subject to a tech sector that often behaves like the medieval church – stretching across political jurisdictions, with immense wealth, and the ability to see into our souls!

As the head of the UK second largest library, at the heart of one of the world’s leading universities, I am deeply aware of the demand for knowledge. We not only need to provide the immediate scholarly information needs of students and researchers, but we also hold a wide range of other kinds of information – the papers of companies like Marconi plc, or NGOs like Oxfam, the archives of the Conservative Party, the papers of seven Prime Ministers (of all political hues) and those of hundreds of politicians, civil servants and diplomats. From my vantage point, I see some interesting trends. 

Firstly, there is a broad consensus around the need for openness and transparency. People want to know about the work of organisations, companies, and institutions. The demand to find out how decisions were made, and by whom, and with what consequences for us today, is now at the heart of many questions both from scholars, journalists, and the public. This is fundamental to the idea of an open society. We need to have captured and preserved records to enable those kinds of questions to be answered, and we need to have managed those records properly – to describe, to be able to cite, verify and reuse that information. For that, we need skilled archivists, librarians, and records managers.

Secondly, there is a growing demand for accountability. Knowing who was responsible is one thing; providing the evidence for that responsibility, and being able to hold those involved to account, is at the heart of our democracy. I was deeply aware of this having an office just off the Committee Corridor in the Lords: seeing the faces of those called to give evidence (there’s that term again) to Select Committees, or even to the Lords of Appeal (this was a long time ago!) was very telling. 

We can only hold those in power to account if we have access to the records of their behaviour, their decision-making, and the discussions with their advisors and staff. This issue has, of course, come to be at the heart of much of the hottest political controversies of recent times: who made what decisions, when, and why around the management of the Covid-19 pandemic for example. The keeping of records is intimately connected to the good conduct of governments, not just so that the administration of government business can be efficiently carried out, but so that the electorate can hold those officials to account, to ensure that their obligations are understood, and that they have been followed. The issues over the treatment of classified documents by Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump, and now, it seems, Joe Biden have been huge issues in American politics for more than a decade.

Although I believe that our records legislation deserves a comprehensive review, the 1958 Public Records Act, although formulated before the era of digital information, was framed to be format neutral. It still holds true. This is why I published two op-eds on the issue of the use of encrypted communications systems (in short ‘Whats’ App’ messages). The first in the FT was published in October 2020, the second a Red Box piece for The Times in April 2021 – long before Partygate became known as ‘Partygate’, with Sue Gray seeking access to mobile phones and What’s App accounts. The point of this rather sorry episode in our recent political life is that there are both short-term and long-term reasons why accountability matters and why transparency is at the heart of accountability. We have the immediate demands of access to current records: Freedom of Information, Data Protection and so on. These relate to the cut and thrust of current concerns.

What has featured less in the debates around openness and access to current information is the valuable long-term perspectives that keeping records gives us. As a historian, I am of course parti pris on this issue. I strongly believe that if we are to thrive as a society, and that if we are to be able to chart a clear path into the future, that we must understand where we have come from. The detail of the terrain that such a cartography needs can only come from records.

We need to inculcate the weight of history in our public leaders. We need them to want to leave behind them a reputation that shines, a personal historical legacy that is positive, and one which the future will celebrate and not denigrate. Having a sense of how records will define the long-term legacy of public officials is critical.

But that long-term thinking can help us in other ways too. Knowing which companies were engaged in what industrial activity is essential in knowing what the long-term effects on our climate have been, for example. I am fortunate in being the President of the Digital Preservation Coalition. We started off twenty years ago with just ten libraries and archives. We are now over a hundred organisations, and a few years ago we were joined by the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. They have to think hard about access to knowledge over the long-term! As nuclear waste is dangerous for thousands of years, society long into the future needs to know a vast amount of information about what nuclear waste is buried in what location, when it was placed there, what containers it was stored in, and so on. I repeat: for society to know where it is going, it needs to know where it has come from. Long-term thinking in public policy terms, must come back into fashion.

A third reason for focussing on records is that they help organisations of all sizes, including states, to manage their affairs efficiently and with confidence. This shouldn't be news to civil servants, politicians or business leaders. It was known and understood more than five thousand years ago when the first archives were organised and maintained in the ancient civilisations of Mesapotamia. In fact they placed such emphasis on it that the first librarians an archivists were afforded sacred functions, with the records kept in temples. Those associations remained into the middle ages where the French state archives, the Tresor de chartes, were kept in the Saint Chapelle in Paris. Now I am not suggesting that librarians, archivists, and records managers need to be given the keys to the temple (or am I?) but we need to be equipped properly, both financially, and in terms of both the legal and policy frameworks.

The knowledge community of archives, libraries and records management has had its work cut out for centuries in dealing with analogue records, and we still have responsibilities for that material: preservation, storage, conservation, cataloguing, and provision of access. Papyrus, parchment and paper records have survived over time because they have been pro-actively looked after, and we continue to care for them, using our professional skill. The digital records of the present and the future add another layer of complexity and cost to our industry. As the volume of records generated grows, so the approaches to selection, appraisal, sampling, cataloguing, storage and preservation become more complex. We cannot rely on just retrieving knowledge from filing systems, cupboards and attics long after the records have ceased to be useful. We have to work with records creators – whether organisations or individuals – when they are creating the records, so that we can ensure we are working with the technology at the right time. The rapid evolution of technological approaches makes our job much harder. But let me be clear: for libraries and archives, it is not the technology per se which is the major challenge. We know we can avoid what tech pioneer Vint Cerf calls ‘the digital dark age’ if it is purely an issue of technology. The real issue, for me, is a joint one of financial resources to allow us to keep up with the tech industry, and the legal and public policy landscape that must ensure that the tech industry works for society and not against it.

I would like to finish with five reasons why the role of libraries and archives is of great importance to society, and need to be supported. I enlarge on these in my book if you would like to know more! 

Firstly, they are essential tools for educating our fellow citizens, providing access to knowledge, mostly free of charge and open to all, helping to level up society, providing opportunity for all to learn, understand, and become both curious and sceptical.

Secondly, they are places where a diversity of knowledge can be encountered – not just the prevailing opinions of the echo chambers in which we live, but places where new knowledge can be encountered, were new ideas can challenge received opinion. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, ‘only through a diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth’.

Thirdly, libraries and archives support the well-being of citizens and the principles of an open society through the preservation of key rights and encouraging integrity in decision-making. Archives can be ‘fortifications in the defence of one’s rights’, as citizens of the former East Germany understood when they insisted on access to the former Stasi archives.

Fourth up is that in an age of disinformation and misinformation, libraries and archives are reference points for facts and truth, where knowledge can be consulted, cited and verified and relied upon. 

Finally, they are places where the identities of individuals, communities, and society are preserved and celebrated, whether through local history in our villages, towns and counties, or through celebrating the cultures of diaspora communities who have come to enrich the lives of our nation.

For democracies to thrive we need to take records – evidence – seriously. The preservation and provision of access to knowledge is an essential pillar of any open society. We all of us here tonight share the responsibility to ensure that George Orwell’s warning in 1984, does not come true:

‘The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.’

Thank you.