Friday, May 2, 2014

Interim Report from the Israel State Archives

For whatever reason I seem to have a spot of time for blogging (see yesterday's post, and today's. I also recommend this older post, as we approach Memorial Day). So perhaps I ought to use the moment to tell about what's happening at the Israel State Archives (ISA), since my move there was what caused me to (mostly) stop blogging.

In the past few years the Cabinet has passed a series of resolutions about the ISA. The most significant was last November, when Cabinet Resolution 911 essentially redefined the goals of the ISA to fit the needs of the 21st century, while also allocating a significantly enhanced budget to be able to reach them. This is a long-term project, starting in 2015 and scheduled to last 15 years, i.e long after the end of my term (senior officials have term limits in Israel). Until the advent of 2015, we're already up ramping up via the previous resolutions, which began allocating new funds in late 2012.

Almost none of what we're doing will be visible to the general public before summer 2015 at the earliest, and some of it will require many years. Fundamental change on the scale we're enacting takes years and years to work its way towards fruition. So if you go visit our website, for example, you'll see the same 18-century version that's been there all along; even if you visit our reading room, the most that will happen is that you'll hear rumors about rumbles.

The first project we started was scanning the existing paper collection. The reason we started there is that, contrary to what folks think, a scanning project is a low-tech operation, 95% of which is logistics, and 4% of which is purely technical. In 2013 we scanned close to 20 million pages plus ten of thousands of photos; at that rate we should complete the entire scanning project in about 40 years, give or take a few.

We also began planning and developing a new main software system, to replace the existing one which was developed in the 1990s. This is very much a high-tech operation, at which many of us are working very hard. Once completed, perhaps in January 2015, we'll have abilities that will be far advanced over what we currently have, but it will still be entirely invisible to the general public. Also, such projects are never "completed"; development goes on for as long as the system can contain it. Eventually the patches required grow larger and more complex than the system itself, and then it's time to move to the next new system - but hopefully that doesn't happen more than once in 15 years.

We're working on revamping the method (and also a bit of the legal context) of how declassification is done. There's an embarrassing backlog in that field, and I'm happy to say that the Cabinet agreed that it had to be dealt with. Again, right now we're planning, developing methodologies and capabilities; the real breakthrough can't happen before those new systems are in place (see previous paragraph) in early 2015. The public won't begin to benefit until a later date - but that could be late 2015, maybe - not that long from now.

We're just about to begin deploying some new ideas and capabilities about how we transfer digital data from government ministries to the ISA. Since documentation doesn't get opened to the public for 15 years, this won't make a difference anyone notices for quite a while - but once that while comes, it will make all the difference. So it needs to be worked on now.

If everything goes according to plan, we should take down the 18-century website in about a year from now, and replace it with its great-great-great-grandchild. On the other hand, nothing ever goes according to plan, so don't hold your breath.

So those are some of the more obvious things that are happening. There are also a couple of smaller tracks we're moving on, such as writing a new draft Law of Archives to send to the Knesset, and a new system of  knowledge management to accompany the collections of documents and make them more generally accessible. Our staff is training itself to do most things differently than they used to, and it's encouraging to see them do so with commitment and determination. We're going to expand the staff, too, once we find the 5 minutes to write up the new job descriptions.

Our intention is to have a revamped ISA public presence later this decade, with the documents of the State of Israel easily accessible online. We're on track, but it will take time.


Kai said...

Hello Yaacov,

I appreciate pretty much your longterm strategic orientation and determination to push it.

Kind regards, Kai

Yaacov said...

Thanks Kai.

Remember to tell me next time you come to town and I'll show you some really interesting stuff.