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Oiling the Archives: A report from the 10th Annual Conference of the European Oil and Gas Archives Network by Kolya Abramsky

By Ian G Evans, on 17 June 2019

Castel Gandolfo, Italy: May 23rd-24th 2019

I have just attended the 10th Annual Conference of the European Oil and Gas Archives Network (EOGAN), in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, May 23rd-24th 2019. Hosted in the corporate archive of the Italian oil company, ENI, the conference’s theme was “Energy and audio-visual heritage: sources, research and visual culture”.

Since 2018, I have sat on EOGAN’s Special Advisory Board, assisting with bringing new institutions into the network. Before coming to UCL to study archives and records management, I worked for many years on a range of social, political and economic aspects relating to the global energy sector. Working with EOGAN allows me to draw on this past experience, but in an archival context. I was supported to attend the conference with a UCL Dean’s Strategic Grant, for which I am grateful.

EOGAN is a European network of professional archives, cultural institutions and companies related to oil and gas, with the purpose of promoting the retention and use of relevant archives and the sharing of skills and experience.

The participants in EOGAN represent oil and gas companies, state agencies, universities, museums and archival institutions – all with a special interest in our oil and gas history. This mixture of records creators, curators, archivists and researchers is the very essence of EOGAN.

EOGAN is a charity registered in Norway. It seeks to:

  • Raise awareness about the importance of oil and gas archives for the cultural heritage as well as the further developments of the energy industry
  • Promote public awareness about the significance of records on oil and gas
  • Contribute actively to the preservation of a wide range of oil and gas archives from both the public and private sectors
  • Encourage that records from subsidiary companies abroad are preserved, where appropriate, in the country where the activities take place
  • Establish procedures to secure the deposition of records in case of mergers and acquisitions
  • Develop archival methods and strategies for the oil and gas sector: appraisal, descriptive standards, preservation of electronic records, web portals
  • Promote research and other uses of oil and gas records by liaising with universities, cultural institutions, think tanks, and independent researchers “

The conference brought together some 40 participants, from Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, UK and USA. This included individuals from national archives, corporate archives, university archives, university research departments, museums, artistic foundations and individual researchers. Participants from the UK were mainly from Scotland, owing to the importance of North Sea Oil, and also the recently established Nucleus archive of the British nuclear industry in Wick.

Presentations included a range of topics: a presentation of EOGAN’s history, by founding individuals from Norway, Italy and Scotland; old film footage from the international work of oil companies such as ENI or Total in the Persian Gulf in the 1950s-1960s (including by famous directors, such as Bernardo Bertolucci); internal training videos from Norwegian oil archives; approaches to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Norway, and by the European Archives Group; a presentation of Archives Portal Europe and its relevance for EOGAN; usages of oral history by energy historians; archival cartoon films about the history of Italy’s electricity sector; a visit to ENI archive’s strong rooms, and exhibition of a sample of their historic photographic material.

Three areas in particular interested me.

I was struck by the close relation between archivists and historians that EOGAN is deliberately building, based on the central premise that the oil and gas archives (and by extension, EOGAN as a network) serve historians of oil and gas. Historians are seen not just as one category of users amongst many, but as a (if not the) key category.  The link between archivists and historians remains a vital link that needs defending, to understand the links between past, present and future, as a basis for understanding causality and making deliberate choices and interventions.

Secondly, major differences were visible between the countries represented in terms of the priority given to energy archives in these countries and their presence in EOGAN. The largest number of participants came from Italy and Norway. The Norwegian delegation included several from the National Archives of Norway, oil companies, and a national oil museum. From Italy there were participants from foundations tied to former municipally owned (now privatized) electric power companies, universities and audio-visual foundations. It was impressive to see the level of cultural importance that energy has in terms of its strong national presence in heritage and other record keeping institutions, and seemingly, the level of economic resources available, as compared to the UK.

A third fascinating area was the question of nuclear energy. Although EOGAN is a network primarily of oil and gas archives, it also touches on the energy sector more broadly. Keeping the current and historic records of a nuclear industry presents difficult and unique challenges that are specific to the sector, due to the close and interdependent relation between the civilian and military nuclear industries, security concerns, and, above all, the time-scales involved.  Nuclear waste needs to be thought about on a scale of literally hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of years. Even an historical record that is several decades old is actually still a current record, and will be relevant for safety purposes for several hundred years to come.

For instance, listing the contents of a nuclear waste dump from the 1970s may be of enormous relevance in 2070 or even 2170, and failure to know the exact contents of the dump and the reasons why it was filled as it was (due to poor record keeping in the 1970s and subsequently), will have enormous safety implications for (potentially) the whole country, and even much of Europe.  This shows the importance of questions about readability, interpretability and contextual information in the long-term. As the participant from Nucleus pointed out, 300 years ago, the English language itself was very different from contemporary English, and Latin was still widely used. What language will people in the geographical space which is now called the UK be speaking, reading and writing 300 years from now? Or, on a different note, how might one archive records from the site of a nuclear accident, given that the records themselves may actually be radioactive? Most people who are trained to handle records are not trained to handle radioactive material, and most who are trained to handle radioactive materials are not trained to handle records. Very few professionals are trained in both. An unusual conundrum indeed.

This raises important, or even life and death, theoretical, and above all, practical questions about the relation between archiving historical records and contemporary records management. It also raises immediate questions about the actual, and not just rhetorical, time-scale involved when we refer to “permanent preservation”.

Given the significance of energy and its related infrastructures for the world economy, it is perhaps not surprising that archiving the sector raises some interesting and unique questions that few other industries ever have to face.

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