#UN70: My Stroll with Bridget Sisk, Chief, UN Archives and Records Management Section

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You can listen or download this interview on the Stroll Podcast

When the UN General Assembly starts in September, global leaders will sit together to agree on a new development agenda for the world and commemorate 7 decades of the United Nations' existence as an organization. My guest today is Bridget Sisk, Chief, UN Archives and Records Management Section.

Bridget, who has a very broad knowledge of the UN System having spent over two decades in the organization, told me about the broad scope the records and management section covers; the digitization of UN records and archives which she has pioneered; as well as the life lessons young people can learn from her experience working around the world.

I hope our conversation inspires you.

Ebenezar: It's a pleasure having you on the Stroll Bridget, how's work going?

Bridget: Thank you Ebenezar, work is good. Work is going very well, we're very busy which is good. Unfortunately it feels like the summer is slipping away too quickly, you know that horrible feeling...

Ebenezar: Yeah, (Hahaha)

Bridget: Before you know it, the kids are back to school and the General Assembly starts, and everything grows up to a whole new energy level.

Ebenezar: I'll like to really know what your job description is like as Chief of UN Archives. What exactly does your section cover?

Bridget: I can give you an overview of what our programme does and what I do as the manager. I am Chief of the UN Archives and Records management section for the Secretariat in New York, we're based in New York but we have a very broad geographic scope in relation to our responsibility. Primarily we manage, on a day-to-day basis, the archives that are here in New York, however we're also responsible for the archive and records of any operation that is created as a result of a Security Council resolution. The reason that is important to our work, in the past 20 years, is that it means peacekeeping operations are under our scope of responsibility.

Peacekeeping as you know has been a major sphere of activity that had seen very significant growth and expansion over several decades. It's very high volume in terms of archives and records when peacekeeping operations close, and it's when they close or go into transition that we are often called in to advise on preparing the records for transfer back to the headquarters, and to guide the requirements that have to be met.

Ebenezar: Wow...that sounds really broad.

Bridget: Yeah, it's very very broad. In addition the other major institutions that have resulted from the Security Council have been the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. For both of those we have provided advisory services since they were established in May, programs to manage the judicial records and archives as well as the records of the tribunal, and of course in the completion strategy that were developed for those tribunals which are both drawing to a close. That's our kind of programmatic scope. We're a very small staff in relation to that, we have 5 professionals dedicated to the secretariat's operations, 2 professionals work on peacekeeping records and archives, and we have 12 support staff. We have 3 major areas of support and activity. The first is the one that immediately comes to mind which is that we are responsible for, preserving and making available the archives of the organization. Archives are a very small percentage of the totality of records and information that the organization creates. We can talk in detail later on the methods we use to identify archives, but we preserve and make them available and so that means, cataloguing them, now we're trying to make them available online as possible within access rules, and of course we're also open to the public here in our research room in New York.

We also provide support in policy development, guidance, and tools for the day-to-day management of the records that are created in the organization. This may be developing a retention policy for a particular business or office, it may be developing taxonomy; it may be providing advice on information sensitivity requirement; also giving advice when it comes to electronic record keeping--managing emails and that kind of thing. We provide onsite services as well, and the other thing that we do is that we run a record center. A record center is a facility and program that offices can use to transfer their business records to when they no longer need them in their immediate offices for business.

We have about 60,000 boxes of records.

Ebenezar: Wow!

Bridget: Yeah, but one of our most important functions which I think people cannot think of this as a function of Archives and Records is to dispose of information in a timely way. We apply the appropriate retention policy, and through internal controls, and permissions and authorization from the creating office, we also then provide a secure disposal service. So, those are our 3 main pillars of activity.

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Ebenezar: It's really broad I must say, and now I better understand what the goes down at the UN Archives and Records.

Bridget: Yes, and I think people usually have this stereotypical view of archives as, sitting in a dusty old basement looking at paper all day, and actually that couldn't be more further from the truth. We're very much on the frontline; very much active with creating offices, and we are less and less involved with managing paper.

Ebenezar: Talking about paper and digitization, under your leadership UN Archives joined he digital preservation coalition. Do you see digital archiving as the future of preserving information?

Bridget: Absolutely! There's no doubt about that. The Secretary General has himself made one of his reform goals for this organization to transform the secretariat into a digital working environment. I would hesitate at this point to say that we have achieved that objective or that we are a paperless organization. However, there is a huge shift and change in working practice, and a transition from a tech-based environment to a digital environment and I think to achieve a truly paperless environment it's going to take a long time. More and more our tools and our records are created digitally, and in my profession we talk about born-digital records, and these are records and archives that are created digitally and only ever exist digitally, and there's simply no paper, no analogue.

For example, we recently received the archives of a commission that is conducting some investigation--they're very important archives and they're very sensitive. And the archives are simply 2 terabytes of data on a drive, and there is no paper. There are multiple formats in those archives, but there is no paper. So, our organization's ability to capture good electronic records, to keep them, and to establish organizational arrangement for the long-term stewardship and ultimately their preservation if they need to be preserved, is a matter of great importance and great urgency in my view.

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Ebenezar: So, we also know that this year the UN celebrates 70 years as an organization, and as chief of UN archives you've got a lot of UN history lying around you every day, and you've explained that earlier. It's a common saying that if you don't learn from history, history repeats itself. Have you seen any part of the UN history repeat itself in recent time?

Bridget: Yes, in certain respects. It's interesting when you look at the UN archives; you'll see that some of the core programs and services that the organization has rendered since its inception are going on today. We have new areas such as our work in climate and environment, which was not on the agenda back when the organization was created, however, if you look at peacekeeping. The UN in its early years established its first peacekeeping operation called the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) which was created in 1956.

Ebenezar: Wow, that's a long time ago...

Bridget: Yes, and this was to do with the conflict between Israel and Egypt at that time. UNEF went on to cease its operations in 1957, and there was then a UNEF2 operation which was soon thereafter created, and as you know we still have peacekeeping operations till this day. Indeed some of the work that the organization has been doing is not just in the same geographic area, but it's addressing the same geopolitical crisis that has existed for 70 years.

Ebenezar: Okay, that's interesting. So let's move from the UN and talk about you as an individual. How long have you been at the United Nations?

Bridget: I joined in 1994....

Ebenezar: That's like 21 years?

Bridget: Uhmmm, Yes, I actually have not realized that I've passed the 2 decade mark, but you just said it. 21 years at the UN.

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Ebenezar: Wow, was working at the UN a dream you had growing up?

Bridget: I'll be very honest with you. I wouldn't even use the word dream. I would say fantasy....

Ebenezar: (Hahaha)

Bridget: It was not something that was remotely on my horizon, from a relatively comfortable but ordinary background I was very fortunate to be raised in a country where I obtained an excellent education--including my university education.

Ebenezar: Was that in the US?

Bridget: No, I grew up in the UK.--In the middle of the UK, in an industrial town. I studied French and German, and so there was always this sort of hope that I would be an interpreter somewhere, but working at the UN was absolutely not on my radar. You know, I used to think that it was pure luck that I ended up at the UN but I read recently that luck is the collision of opportunity and practice. So, I had the skills. I had the drive. I took chances, and I was lucky enough to enter the UN as a junior professional in 1994.

Ebenezar: On a final note, I'll like you to just speak to young people right now. Can you share with us two life lessons you've learnt in course of working at the UN for over 2 decades. Two important lessons that young people can apply to their lives to become better people?

Bridget: Eve in the very small office that we work in with roughly 20 staff. We have 14 nationalities represented, and of course I interact with a much larger number of nationalities on a daily basis. Being outside of one's immediate cultural environment is both challenging at times, but ultimately inspiring and eye-opening. I would say, reach out beyond your immediate surrounding which may not mean anything further than immersing one's self, whether it's through reading, in a different culture. In understanding the different views the global population has.

When it comes to the archives itself, I think young people that are very much in the digital generation--and we provide the archives digitally to the world--to remember the value of primary evidence, of original source material when they're studying or learning about something. To always question what they are told, to go back to the original source; to find out the truth for themselves. And they can do this by using archives which are the original evidence of a certain organization--what it did, and how it did it.

So, I will encourage young people to really use primary source material. We all turn to Wikipedia, I am a Wiki fan, don't get me wrong, but you can't beat the original source.

Ebenezar: Yes, that's true. Thank you so much for your time. It's been a pleasure speaking with you.

Bridget: You too! Stay in touch and let me know how you get on, and we'll see where you are by this time next year yeah?

Ebenezar: Sure, thank you very much. Bye.

Bridget: Bye bye, Ebenezar.
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Food for the Soul: "I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works" (Revelation 20:12).

(Images Credit: UN Photos, Reddit)

Remember you can download or listen to this interview on The Stroll Podcast.