A hundred years of the US National Park Service


Melbourne is abuzz in the lead-up to Christmas. The crowds are out in shops and eateries. Others have been watching 16 hours of Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring Cycle. This production by Neil Armfield accentuates the opera’s warnings about the adverse consequences, on relationships as well as on nature, of greed and material acquisition. Another Ring Cycle earlier this year put the emphasis more pointedly on the environmental degradation caused by excessive consumption and industrialisation.

The first staging in Washington of the  American Ring Cycle took place during the 100th anniversary of a great US institution, the National Park Service. It was a timely coincidence that the opera opened with magnificent video footage of Yosemite National Park. As the action unfurled, the audience saw acres of burnt-out woodland.

America’s forests are under attack, from fire, pestilence and drought. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center show that more than 10 million acres of land burned across the United States in 2015, the biggest area burned since 1960. While fire is an important part of the environmental cycle, the human footprint and a warming climate are having a pronounced effect. Many wildfires are caused not by nature but by lawn mowers or campers and milder winters have seen an explosion in the bark beetle, which is eating its way through vast tracts of evergreen forests.

When Congress established the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, it declared its mission was to maintain the national parks for the ‘enjoyment’ of the people, while leaving the parks ‘unimpaired’ for future generations. The dilemma this mission poses is a leitmotif in the history of the service. Stephen Mather, the first NPS director, promoted tourism to make the national parks self-supporting. He encouraged park hotels built by the railroads, roads for car access, and private concessions like restaurants and tourist cabins. He also supported attractions like the giant sequoia with a car tunnel, bear feeding shows, and Yosemite’s ‘firefall’, where a stream of burning embers was dropped at night from Glacier Point to the valley far below. (Now visitors have to wait until the setting sun creates the illusion of a firefall during the month of February.)

The NPS erred in favour of enjoyment for many years. This started to change in the 1960s. In 1967 the policy of suppressing fires was reversed in recognition of the role fires play to clear space for new growth and to germinate some seeds. And in 1995, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone ‒ to the chagrin of nearby farmers – to restore nature’s way of weeding out weak animals and reducing overpopulated elk herds.

As one of many of the excellent educational resources about the park system explains, the rationale for national parks has expanded. First it was simply about preserving scenery; then it sought also to protect wildlife, objects of historical and scientific value, endangered environments and wilderness areas; now it strives to restore original ecosystems.

Since park managers began counting visitors in 1904, the NPS has recorded more than 13 billion visits to its sites, which today include 59 national parks and 76 national monuments. In 2015, annual visits reached 305 million. With all the centenary celebrations this year, that record is likely to be broken. We must hope that the wonders, natural and man-made, all those visitors encounter convert them to the cause of preserving the past and the future.

by Francesca Beddie

Image by author: Mammoth Falls, Yellowstone National Park ( established in 1872 ‘as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’).

Access to records: user expectations in the digital age


Christine Yeats represented the PHA NSW&ACT at an Australian Society of Archivists seminar, Forging Links, on 18 October 2016. This post is based on her presentation at the seminar…

Today, people from across the globe can get online access to an ever-increasing number of records. Does this render obsolete the expert advice and assistance provided by reference archivists in reading rooms? Not according to many professional historians and other researchers. For them, having the archivist on hand to guide them through the maze of indexes, registers and finding aids remains the ideal, regardless of the format of the records being consulted. Nevertheless, digitisation is making it possible to move away from this one-on-one model of service delivery to that of access-on-demand, at a time and place determined by the user.

Both in Australia and overseas, archives and libraries are taking advantage of the increasing efficiency of digitisation to improve service delivery while also reducing costs. Digitisation also provides custodians with the means of implementing large-scale preservation strategies. But it must be remembered that, irrespective of their format, records remain the researchers’ raw materials. This makes it incumbent on archives and libraries to describe the records being digitised so that they can be accessed and used in an informed way.

Users will increasingly expect to be able to discover information online about all the records held in an institution, even the ones that have not been digitised. They will also want to be able to conduct a seamless search of the collection, much like Google. Archives need to be prepared to act on and respond to these expectations.

All this requires getting adequate funding, an ongoing challenge for archives and libraries. Users demanding more and more may not be aware of such challenges; hence the need for a communication strategy to help plan what should be digitised as well as to build goodwill and support for the organisation.

It is also important to communicate to the inexperienced researcher the traps easy access to ever increasing digital content can present. Archivists know that records were not created in a vacuum. Without context ─ who, what, why and when ─ records lose meaning and value, the very thing at risk of being lost as researchers jump head first into an ocean of digital records. In making it easier to access the digital copy, archival description is at risk of being ignored. For example, while researchers do not need to understand the background behind transportation to New South Wales to search the convict indents, without this information the records make little sense. By enriching the research experience through transparent and engaging descriptive information, users will be encouraged to become better informed about the records they are researching.

While the information contained within an archival document should be the same, irrespective of format, paper and digital records are not the same. In replacing the paper-based archival document with a digital surrogate we enter a flexible environment, not constrained by walls and only limited by what material archival repositories can provide online. We can, for example, manipulate an image in ways not possible in the non-digital environment. The ease with which this can be done once a record has left the protected environs of the archival repository is both its strength and its weakness.

The ‘certainty’ of having the inviolate record preserved in the government archives collection is vital. All users need to be assured that the record is the same as the original, in every way. The descriptive information needs to be transparent so that records can be understood and interpreted, in the same way that was possible before they were digitised. That means archival repositories and libraries should ensure that information about their holdings is accessible even if the records themselves have not been digitised.

To realise the potential of digital surrogates, while also preserving the original documents, calls for an alliance of archivists and users to build support for properly funded and carefully managed digitisation projects.