The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), in partnership with international scholars, conducted a study within the framework of the “Evaluation of the Openness of State Archives in Post-Soviet Republics and Eastern Bloc States” project in 2019-2020. The study established the transparency ratings of the national archives of 18 countries, reached several interesting conclusions, and revealed characteristics specific to the state archives found in various countries.
When the research project was beginning in June 2019, the pandemic was of course not considered as a factor. Nevertheless, the circumstances around not only the archives, but all aspects of life, have changed drastically in the entire world. Naturally, this could not have been reflected in the methodology and final ratings of the research project. Therefore, a new study was initiated within the framework of the project, the purpose of which was to discover what level of openness of the state archives was encountered by researchers during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns in various countries, and how the state archives adapted to novel circumstances. Another question the project asks is whether the state archives elaborated a strategic action plan for similar situations in the future. For the purposes of this study, IDFI created a questionnaire that was filled out by international partners who have had research experience in the archives. Additionally, the study used various sources available on the internet.
The following countries were considered in the study: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Ukraine.
The questionnaire for the study was developed by the IDFI Memory and Disinformation Studies Direction Head, Anton Vatcharadze, with the assistance of a Hungarian partner, Sandor Horvath. The questionnaire aimed to evaluate the openness of the state archives in various countries during the COVID-19 pandemic and was sent to the international partners of IDFI in 10 countries. It contained questions regarding topics like: the nature and duration of the restrictions imposed at the archives during the pandemic; the influence of the pandemic on archival operations; the financial situation of the personnel and archival institutions; the availability of archival resources in online spaces; and remote activities of the archives.
The circumstances arising due to the COVID-19 pandemic made the importance of proper functioning of the website of an archive and online communication with users especially clear, which the study also confirmed. In a time when people across the world were forced to remain in their homes and work remotely, the only remaining access points to materials in the archives for historians and researchers were the internet, the websites of the archives, and the fonds and electronic databases found therein. The archival inventories, catalogues and documents uploaded to the websites of archival institutions will play an ever-increasingly important role in the future development of research. The study led to several general discoveries:
- The openness rating of state archives revealed by IDFI’s project directly correlates with the effective operation of the archives during the pandemic: the most open archives took into consideration the satisfaction of researchers and citizens with electronic services, and vice versa;
- The archives that had already begun the process of creating and developing digital databases offered much better service and work opportunities to the users than the archives where digital services had been developed poorly;
- The Ukrainian state archives functioned actively and with the most transparency during the pandemic: they published monthly overviews of the work at the state archives, mainly touching upon the creation of new electronic resources and digitalization of existing documents. Another active archive was that of Lithuania – 40% of the “Emergency Cultural Fund” established during the pandemic was allocated to digitalization projects, including digitalization of archival documents. The Latvian State Archive, despite remote operations, did not cease research projects of genealogical nature, when the analogous service was put on hold by the State Archive of Belarus, while the State Archive of Georgia made the decision to allow researchers in the reading hall with the exception of those studying genealogy. Hungary reduced funding for archives, while the majority of the archives in Kazakhstan did not respond to inquiries remotely.
- For the future, it is crucial to develop an action plan for tackling crises, as the proper functioning of the archives, retaining employees and other issues will be largely dependent on the existence and implementation of one.
The State Archive of Georgia and the archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs were closed to researchers, while other types of services were provided by these institutions remotely. The reading hall of the State Archive of Georgia closed to researchers on March 6 and reopened on October 1, but with some restrictions – only researchers originating from institutions of higher learning or research institutions were allowed into the reading halls, while those with private interest in accessing the materials, such as the people researching genealogies of family names, were not allowed access to the reading halls. It should be noted that the share of researchers exploring genealogies of family names is generally the highest in the State Archive of Georgia, comprising more than 70% of all research. Therefore, the motive for their exclusion was precisely the high number of researchers, rather than any other objective reason. A practice similar to that of the State Archive of Georgia was only put into place on the Belorussian archive, which also restricted access to researchers of genealogical records and documentation precisely because of the large number of researchers and the volume of respective work. In contrast, the National Archive of Latvia, which boasts a higher overall rating, continued receiving requests for and issuing materials of similar nature to researchers.
No changes were introduced to archival legislation. According to the internal regulations of the State Archive of Georgia, all documents accessed by researchers and employees of the archive are subject to a 72-hour quarantine period before being returned to storage. The pandemic did not cause a reduction in the number of the employees of the State Archive of Georgia. 80-90% of all workers of the archive began working from home. Their main responsibilities included the translation of Russian-language inventories of the fonds created during the Soviet era, their improvement and digitalization, although the public at large has no information regarding the results of their activities. So far, no improved finding aids or archival inventories translated from Russian to Georgian have been published on the website.
It should also be noted here that the State Archive of Georgia became more active on social media by posting interesting documents and articles. Additionally, the State Archive held several online exhibits during this period. The State Archive of Georgia generally increased the availability of archival documents on their website in recent times. These documents are published on a period basis. In 2018-2019, the website of the State Archive underwent significant technical improvements, and the institution began proactively publishing documents, fonds, and individual collections online. So far, only a small portion of the documents has been uploaded, but this should still be considered as a significant step forward.
The State Archive of Georgia and the archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs have not developed a strategic action plan to tackle future crises.