A botched digitization project has probably condemned irreplaceable documents to extinction following the fire in Parliament.
Over the course of two years, an outside company was paid millions of rands to scan Parliament’s collection of about 7 000 volumes of material or seven million individual pages.
Much of this collection was unique to Parliament — no other store of archival material in the country has a copy. Of particular importance are the annexures to the Hansard — the official record of Parliament’s deliberations going back to 1910. The records include unpublished government reports, annual reports, research, and manuscripts.
Parliament staff cannot yet access the buildings where these records are kept. While the library and stores at the National Council of Provinces are understood to be safe, a 4 January report to the Parliament Library warns that the entire collection in the stores at the National Assembly was affected by the fire, and may be lost. These stores contain South Africa’s entire pre-1994 parliamentary records.
The basement in the National Assembly that houses the archives is believed to have suffered grave water damage during the fire. At one point the water was chest-high, according to a report. This would be disastrous for the documents housed there, most of which are decades old.
The 4 January report offers some mitigation: these records have been digitised. But this is not accurate.
Almost half of the scans are semi-legible or even completely unreadable. This failure was identified by Parliament’s library staff after the records were scanned in 2017. The service provider returned to Parliament to rescan the botched records – but abruptly stopped this work long before it was completed.
Despite that millions of pages needed to be scanned again in order to be legible, the project was listed as being finished in official records.
READ | Early indications are that valuable historical artifacts survived the Parliament fire
In Parliament’s Annual Report for 2017/18, listed among the key achievements that year was the digitisation of “approximately seven million pages of rare and fragile library material which included books, Hansard, artwork, microfiche, photographs, and maps”.