While working with her colleagues Karim Fertikh and Hugo Canihac at the Historical Archives of the European Union at Villa Salviati in Florence, Italy, last October and November 2014, Heike Wieters had the opportunity to talk to Dieter Schlenker, Director of the HAEC. Having taken office in early 2013 – after a three year term at UNESCO’s Information and Knowledge Management Unit in Bangkok and earlier assignments at the Caritas and Vatican Archives – Dieter Schlenker is an acclaimed expert in archival matters. Hence, we are more than happy that he agreed to introduce not only us, but also the readers of our blog to the Historical Archives, its mission and future challenges. Voila!
HW: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Dieter! We would like to give our blog’s readers a little impression about the archives, your work and future challenges for an Institution such as the EU Archive. So, my first, rather general question is about the history and general mission of your archive: Since when does the archive exist, what is it that you do here in the Villa Salviati, and what kind of records can visitors find here?
DS: The mission of the Historical Archives of the European Union (HAEU) is to preserve and allow public access to the historical records of EU Institutions. It processes the annual transfers made by the EU archival services in Brussels and Luxembourg after a general archival closure period of 30 years, and publishes inventories and other finding aids to these archives in its online database and in the Archives Portal Europe. Since the European Court of Justice decided in 2014 to deposit their historical archives in Florence researchers can now find the archival records of all EU Institutions, except the European Central Bank.
The Historical Archives also collects private archives of individuals and Non-EU Organisations that have played a major role in the process of European integration. Among the 160 private fonds deposited in the HAEU appear the finest collection of federalist archives in Europe, such prestigious fonds as that of the European Space Agency, and a unique collection of oral history with more than 600 interview recordings.
HW: As a historian I know that not all records collections are the same. So I would like to learn a little more about the general guidelines you apply to the process of recording the files: How do you actually make sure that all relevant information ends up in your archive, and what are your criteria for documents that are worthy to be recorded for future generations?
DS: The EU Institutions have established over the years dedicated records management and archives services for the management, maintenance, selection and transfer to Florence of archival records. The opening of historical archives requires a formal process of declassification of files, which involves various services, such as the legal service and the Data Protection Office of EU Institutions. Also, for safeguarding purposes a copy, formerly on microfiche nowadays in digital format, of the archival records is produced prior to the transfer to Florence. With certain delays caused to these processes, the archival records available in Florence date from the beginning of the European Communities with the Treaty of Paris in 1951 up to the early 1980s.
A different method is applied to the private archival deposits. In these cases the processing and selection of files is done by the Historical Archives in collaboration with the depositor and, in case of restricted documents of provenance from EU Institutions and other public entities, their agreement is also sought.
HW: My next question pertains to the ongoing process of digitalization: I see that you are trying to produce microfilms of more or less all the documents you own, so that there are duplications of all the paper files. Some documents are also available as pdfs by now: What is your policy regarding digitalization and eventually even granting online access to the files? Will you eventually provide access to all files in your online database? And how do you make sure that the search engines actually allow users of the archives (both scholars and public administrators) to find the relevant information?
DS: While microfiches, and nowadays digital copies, have been systematically produced by the EU Institutions for their historical paper files, the Historical Archives in Florence concentrated their efforts towards digitization of private deposits. The previous production of microfiches for these fonds has been discontinued in 2013. The digitization is primarily seen as safeguarding of the paper files and once digitized the original paper files are no longer made available to the researchers to protect their conservation status. The availability online of digitized files is decided on a case-by-case basis in consultation with the depositor or depositing organisation. Hence, certain digitized fonds are only available in the reading room, e.g. the private papers of the Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi, others have been put on the web and can be retrieved and consulted via the online database, e.g. the archives of Commission President Francois-Xavier Ortoli and of the Commission’s Secretary General and President of the European University Institute Emile Noel. The strategic approach is to digitize all fonds with preservation issues, depending on age, paper quality, former preservation conditions, usage, etc., but due to budgetary constraints, only a limited selection of fonds can be digitized year per year.
HW: Do you actually record emails, what is the general policy regarding electronic communication in the EU institutions?
DS: The various EU Institutions have established digital records management procedures and put respective systems in place to preserve electronic records on long-term basis with the appropriate metadata attached. E-mail is rather a specific format for organizational records, so it will depend if the contents of these communications has a long-term retention value in order to qualify it as a potential archival record.
HW: Digitalization is certainly one big challenge for the future. The question of how to allow access to the crucial information that is contained in the files is certainly an important one. Are there other problems or challenges for an institution such as yours: What will your main fields of work be in 10, 20 or 30 years?
DS: Indeed, all archives are nowadays confronted with the digital era, but in Florence, due to the 30-years closure of EU-institutional archives to the public we are approaching this new archival field slowly. We have recently put in place a digital records management and archives system for digital-born archival records that start coming in mainly from private depositors and since late 2013 we are archiving websites of EU Institutions and Agencies. This area cannot but grow and will certainly be a priority in the coming years. At the same time the sufficient provision of storage space for paper files will continue to be a challenge. The new location of the Archives at Villa Salviati was established based on calculations of 10 years ago, therefore in the near future new storage facilities will have to be identified. Another aspect to consider is the development in archival research. While the figures of on-site researchers in the reading room are stable since years, we see growth rates of up to 30% in the online consultation, particularly each time we publish a new inventory or a new set of digitized files online. This trend will certainly continue, which is why we heavily invest in our online database and retrieval systems, in the online availability of digitized files and in our presentation in the Archives Portal Europe, the central access point to all archival institutions throughout Europe.
HW: One little question regarding your policy of declassification: We noticed that there are comparatively few files for the period from the 1980s until today. What is your policy regarding classified material (records that cannot be accessed by the general public for legal/privacy reasons) and do you think that this policy will change in the future?
DS: The archival disclosure rules for internal EU-institutional documents foresee the opening of these archives after 30 years. The core holdings of the Historical Archives therefore currently reach up to 1983. Some Institutions, such as the Council of the European Union have a work backlog and archives are only deposited up to 1975, while other Institutions, such as the European Parliament, the Investment Bank and the Court of Auditors have deposited a variety of archival records of public nature up to the early years 2000. For all records that are still closed, the EU Institutions apply a system of derogation, which allows for citizens and researchers to request access to specific restricted documents before their declassification and transfer to Florence.
HW: My last question is a rather general question, but since Saisir l’Europe is an interdisciplinary project I think it might be of interest to some of our project’s members: Why should academics doing research on Europe and the process of European Integration come to your archives? What can people learn or find here that they won’t be able to find elsewhere?
DS: The Historical Archives in Florence serves as central access point to the archival records of the EU Institutions. While the various Institutions and Agencies keep copies of their respective archives transferred to Florence, the great advantage is to find the various relevant resources in one place. These collections are enriched by a unique collection of private archives on the process of European integration that stretches from the founders of the European projects, through former high officials of EU Institutions, to Federalists and federalist movements and is rounded up by various Non-EU organisations’ archives such as ESA, OEEC (digital copies) and the Western European Union. Also, the collection of more than 600 interviews of various oral history projects in Europe provides a unique resource for researchers. Research is facilitated by an international team of professional archivists and an online database containing inventories to 220.000 archival files and items, such as photos, posters, political campaign materials and audio recordings. A last important aspect is the embedding of the Archives into the rich and diverse academic community of the European University Institute, the active European Integration Working Group of EUI researchers and the upcoming inauguration of the new Alcide De Gasperi Research Centre dedicated to the European integration history.
HW: Thanks again for this interview!
Crédits d’image : AHUE