Wendy Borchers
Why has the ABC decided to abolish 75 jobs in its precious Archives and Libraries division: 58 permanent positions and 17 contractors, Australia-wide? 

Why make the announcement now, on the brink of the 90th anniversary celebrations on July 1? Why has this decision been made at all and who made it?  An article in the Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed that the managing director of the Corporation, David Anderson, approves the idea and supports the fact that journalists will do their own research in future, apart from those attached to 4 Corners! As if journalists don’t have enough to do.  

As an archival researcher/producer with around 35 years of experience working in ABC Archives and Libraries until 2012, I can assure readers that it takes lashings of skill, enthusiasm and a profound knowledge of the Collection to be efficient in the role.

On Australia Day, 2015 I was honoured by my colleagues by being awarded an AM in the Order of Australia: for significant service to the film and television industry as a researcher, producer and archivist, also to the preservation of Indigenous heritage. It seems to me that these qualities, possessed by each one of my former colleagues in spades, have been ignored altogether by the current ABC Management.

A Priceless Collection in ABC vaults.

Although each State houses an impressive accumulation of film and videotape items, the majority of the Collection is housed in Sydney vaults.  The Collection represents pockets of significant milestones in Australia’s cultural heritage and provides a kaleidoscope of programs for re-use in program production. I believe that all interstate branches are now completely tapeless, which is no mean feat. 

A Library Sales section was established in Head Office and in each State so this material is accessible to the general public. The cuts will affect Collections, Document Archives as well as public access areas as well. The unkindest cuts of all, it seems to me.

Film Research – Program Research – Archives & Libraries – Archive Research – Content Management

My career as a film researcher began in 1972, when the nightly, half-hour current-affairs’ program, This Day Tonight, was in production. The Library then was, as it still is, a very social place where journalists would visit their dedicated researcher to discuss their proposed story and to learn what footage might be available to illustrate it.

Why now?

Over the years I have witnessed highly talented members of staff walk out the door due to government cutbacks to budgets and subsequent redundancies, which brings me to another question, why has the ABC decided to make the cutbacks now and not wait to see whether some funding might be restored by the new government when it brings down its budget in October? 

False Economy.

It seems to me this policy is false economy of the highest order. I remember this idea being mooted many years ago but it was shot down in flames before it managed to lift off the ground, mostly because journalists rebelled against having to do their own archival research on top of all the other duties they were expected to perform.  Who, under these circumstances, is going to catalogue the new material as it is produced? Are journalists going to be trained as cataloguers as well as researchers? I don’t believe they will have time to squeeze in all these extra duties.

Will this priceless collection lie dormant in the vaults?

I wonder whether the instigator of this policy actually has any knowledge of the ABC’s audio/visual Collection?  Has that person ever witnessed work performed by a librarian /archivist/ producer /researcher? Will this Management decision mean that this material will lie dormant in the vaults because there are no members of staff with the specialist skills or time to access it?

The vital work of ABC Archivists is discernible on most television and radio programs every day.

Most evenings on our television screens we see the vital work of the archival researcher/producer on display, not only on Four Corners but programs like Catalyst, Compass, Foreign Correspondent, Australian Story, 7.30, The Drum, Media Watch, Insiders, Q & A and One Plus One all rely heavily on archival content and what about all the fabulous podcasts which have been produced in these straitened times, under the most trying of circumstances! Radio programs like the Science Show, Conversations and Radio National generally, also rely heavily on archival content.

The Archives’ Act, 1983

The Act regulates government record-keeping and public access to records.  Will journalists be trained to become familiar with this, as well as becoming experts in the fields of copyright and Fair Dealing? If a journalist/researcher can’t access the critical material for which they are searching in the ABC’s library, would they know of other organisations to search?  Would they bother, even if they did know? 

There are obviously flaws in the system; will journalists be aware of them and have the knowledge to overcome them? How will they learn about them in the first place if the experts have all departed?

It is my understanding that over 90% of radio archives is digitised but only 60% of television material and this does not include film items.  Obviously still a long way to go before this goal is achieved. I’m told that many items in the pictorial library have been digitised too, but not all of them.

The ABC has this extraordinary resource at its fingertips. I understand the idea is still only a proposal so there is time and hope for the decision to be moderated or reversed. 

It has taken 90 years of dedication of staff to build the Collection. Please treat it with the respect it deserves! Instead of cutbacks in funding, resources and staff, I suggest the opposite should apply – an increase in funding for the purposes of Preservation and Digitisation of the Collection.  

Wendy Borchers (Forster)

(Former ABC Archives Producer and Researcher)

The Chair Replies

In reply, The Chair of the ABC, Mr David Anderson, said:

“I would also like to reassure both you and your readers that we view the ABC Archives as a nationally significant resource, one the ABC will always protect. 

For several years the ABC has been digitising the archive as part of our development into a digital-first media organisation.  This is consistent with other media companies and public broadcasters around the world. Before undertaking this important project we engaged with similar organisations that have already completed or are in the process of preserving their legacy media collections, including the National Archives of Australia, the BBC and CBC.

The digitisation of ABC Archives is designed to protect our national heritage and make it more accessible for content makers and all Australians. By the end of this year 1.2 million documents, 637,000 images, 97,000 videotapes and 54,000 audio carriers will have been digitised.

While we are proposing to remove approximately 58 roles and introduce 30 new roles to ensure we have the necessary skills in our workforce for this transition to digital, the ABC’s archives and library services will still employ around 70 people. There will continue to be highly-skilled Archives staff based in newsrooms to assist and support our content teams, and they will remain responsible for the archiving of raw material. Any work done by journalists to assist in archiving material will be minimal and is already done by many of our newsroom employees around the country.

Many programs our audiences have valued over the years have relied on the archive and the staff who manage it.  I do not foresee a time when such content will not be readily available for our journalist and program makers as they produce the programs our audiences rely on and value.

Safeguarding the ABC Archives, making it fully accessible and more usable are part of responsible stewardship of this wonderful resource.”

On a Personal note . . . 

The ABC in all its many forms, is, without question the most important media in the country. We grew up with the ABC as did our parents. I have to admit to some bias as my Uncle Jim Revitt was a Foreign Correspondent, the first producer of “Weekend Magazine,” and among other hats he wore, started the Indigenous cadet training program, discovering talent like Barbara McCarthy (now Senator Malarndirri),  Stan Grant and Aaron Pederson (who went on to another career) among many. Therefore, I know how the ABC functioned and how its principles were respected. As a cadet journalist (on a magazine) I was privileged to be given advice from some of the ABC “greats.”

In these times of fractured media where influence and money count more than facts and ethics, we need our ABC more than ever (especially in times of crisis).

No large and diverse national organisation functions perfectly all the time. But against massive funding cuts and political interference on occasion, the ABC stands for principles, truth, bravery and independence . . .which are in rather short supply these days. 

Aunty has been there for us for 90 years. Where would we be without her?  Happy Birthday to our ABC!


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