The B.C. government has been shipping valuable historical documents to a warehouse instead of properly preserving them in the B.C. Archives, a new report shows.
Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said there are now 33,000 boxes of records languishing in storage, with more than 3,000 boxes arriving each year.
“The status quo cannot continue without significant financial and historical consequences,” she states in her 23-page report, A Failure to Archive. “Government must act now to address this risk.”
Denham said the problem dates back to the Liberal government’s 2001-02 core review.
The government shifted the B.C. Archives to the Royal B.C. Museum, but only gave the museum enough money to store existing records. So the museum decided to charge the government to archive additional records at a cost of $454 a box.
“However, as government did not provide ministries with the resources to pay this fee, no government records have been transferred to the B.C. Archives since 2003,” the report said.
Instead, the government has stored the records in a warehouse at a cost of $6.72 a box.
The impasse was made worse by the government’s failure to properly manage and archive the “tsunami” of new electronic records, said Denham, a professional archivist.
“When I came to be B.C., I was shocked when I found that there were no records for the last decade transferred and preserved in the provincial archives,” she said. “That’s a huge gap.”
Denham said most people think of archives as containing dusty old ledgers and meeting minutes from a century ago. But they also preserve recent records that serve as the “corporate memory” of government policies and decisions.
Without those records, she said, “wheels are reinvented, the ability to audit decisions is compromised and the right of access is undermined.”
Her report notes that, in the past, the B.C. government has relied on archived records to sue tobacco companies for health-care costs and help courts assess aboriginal land claims and allegations of abuse in schools or hospitals. Researchers, journalists and citizens also rely on the archives to shed light on matters of public interest.
“Archival research on the government’s 130-year-old decision to levy a head tax on Chinese immigrants helped foster a public dialogue, ultimately leading to the recent apology to Chinese Canadians by the B.C. legislature,” Denham writes.
The failure to properly archive records forces the public to file freedom of information requests for material that should be readily available for free in the B.C. Archives, Denham said. The government, meanwhile, is wasting money processing those requests and retrieving files from storage.
The report urges the government to either take control of the B.C. Archives and properly fund it, or work things out with the museum.
She also calls for the government to create a system for archiving electronic records and update its antiquated records management legislation.
Andrew Wilkinson, minister of technology, innovation and citizens’ services, said in a statement that the government is meeting its legal obligation for storage, while working with the museum to find a solution for records that need to be archived.
Angela Williams, the museum’s chief operating officer, said a team of people from the government and the museum began tackling the issue two months ago.
“We appreciate the privacy commissioner’s concerns, just as government does,” she said. “I think the key message for all of us is that we’re working together.”
Williams made clear, however, that returning the archives to the government is not a preferred option.
“We’ve been a Crown corporation for 11 years now,” she said. “We’ve integrated the collections of both the museum and the archives. We’re working on an integrated collections management system to provide access to all of the information we hold. So moving the entire B.C. Archives back to government would be problematic.”