Interview with Emmanuel Tschitschmann

Can you introduce yourself for our readers who don’t know you?

My name is Emmanuel Tschitschmann, I’m an archivist by profession and a historian by training, currently working as a service provider for the University. I’ve been on-site since 2019, but I’ve been carrying out assignments since 2015. I organised the relocation of the FHSE. Since 2019 I’ve been the archivist at the FHSE.

What exactly is your role? What is your mission?

What’s truly fascinating about my job is that everything has to be done. Ultimately, I shape both my job and the tasks associated with it. I have nearly complete autonomy, thanks to the trust I enjoy from the management, including the Dean of the FHSE. This enables me to focus on subjects that genuinely interest me and are crucial to fulfilling my mission.

Primarily, I oversee the data flow within the faculty, managing both paper archives and, ideally, the digital archives circulating within the administrative departments. Although my primary focus is on administrative tasks, I am gradually extending my assistance to the professors as well. Additionally, I am tasked with training new recruits. This involves ensuring that all new administrative staff are well-versed in archive-related issues. This encompasses not only the day-to-day management of their paper archives but also the digital flow on their individual computers and within their respective departments.

What exactly is an archive?

An archive is any document at any stage in its life cycle. From the inception of a Word document or the moment a sheet of paper is filled with writing, it possesses the potential to become an archive. Subsequently, these documents may or may not hold value, which can be administrative, historical, or personal. In general terms, we refer to any produced document as an archive.

The classification as a binding document arises when an archive holds a particular significance, such as bearing a signature or representing a commitment by the person who authored or created it. This encapsulates the essence of what defines an archive.

And why is archiving so important, for the University specifically?

There are various perspectives to consider in this matter, with the historical aspect being one of them. Whether it’s a university, a company, or a ministry, their archives serve as the collective memory. This historical record allows us to delve into the past, understand our journey to the present, and project into the future. The importance extends beyond historical understanding; it’s crucial for administrative purposes. Smooth administration relies on the ability to locate documents. Despite the ongoing digital transition for the past two decades, many aspects of our records have a longer history. Therefore, it’s essential to maintain both digital and paper records to comprehend the functioning of the entity.

You mentioned paper and electronic archives. How do you reconcile digital and physical archives?

In the 2000s, there was a fervent belief that the digital transition would be an environmental savior, leading to the digitization of vast amounts of data. However, a realization dawned that data centers consumed even more energy than the process of cutting down a forest specifically grown for paper production1. The solution, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle, and the choices involved remain challenging.

Today, there’s a tendency to digitize and retain everything, presenting a new set of issues. The stored data consumes energy monthly, reflected not only in electricity bills but also in our overall carbon footprint. In contrast, a paper archive, once created and printed, ceases to pollute, requiring only preservation. However, unnecessary paper, such as printed emails and draft reports, lies dormant and serves no purpose. Hence, there’s a need to reintegrate such paper into recycling streams for the creation of useful items.

Similarly, with digital archives, not everything preserved is essential and continues to consume energy. Therefore, the crucial task is to make informed choices about what to retain and what to delete.

In this arbitration, are there any regulations or things that we must necessarily have in our paper archives?

The 2015 law2 on digital archives, which introduced the electronic signature is grounded in the notion that an electronic document can serve as an authentic original. Consequently, a majority of documents can now be preserved in digital format. While it’s true that most significant decisions have a paper version, typically a signed contract or a diploma bearing stamps and signatures from various authorities, the potential for digitization is acknowledged. Digital storage, including secure digital vault, is a viable option.

However, there persists a strong inclination toward paper documentation. Major decisions, marked by signed agreements or official certificates, often find their way to paper sooner or later. For example, a formal agreement between universities tends to materialize as a physical contract. On the other hand, agreements between students and their internship providers may remain exclusively digital without the necessity for a paper counterpart. A thesis will have its paper and digital version. An assignment, a master’s thesis, will increasingly be in digital format only.

Is it easier to find digital documents than physical ones?

Efficiency in organizing and retrieving information depends on the system in place and the individuals responsible for it. In the absence of an archivist or documentalist, manual filing and organization become challenging, leading to difficulties in locating specific items. Studies suggest that people spend around 10% of their daily time searching for things, making the role of an archivist crucial in saving time.

The effectiveness of the search process hinges on how it is conducted and what methods are employed. Presently, if tasked with finding a student who attended the FHSE in the 1970s, I can accomplish this in approximately 10 minutes. In contrast, relying on digital archives alone, such as those managed by SEVE, might not yield the same efficiency. While they possess digital records, I have access to some paper archives, enabling me to find information more swiftly. As a result, they often turn to me for assistance in such matters.

So, comparing theory and practice, there’s no real preference between the two?

No, there’s no preference. In my job, we treat documents in the same way whether it’s a Word document or a sheet of paper. The key consideration lies in how we store them. While a paper document is susceptible to risks such as fire, flooding, or loss, securing it is relatively straightforward-just ensuring proper storage conditions and having a secure room suffices. This enables the preservation of paper documents for extended periods, potentially spanning hundreds of years.

Digital archives, on the other hand, pose more complexities. They require specialized software, digital safes, and dedicated data centers for storage. The fundamental challenge lies in the fact that if a paper archive burns, we immediately know it’s lost, thanks to inventories and the visible damage. However, in the case of digital archives, if there’s a leak or loss of data on a server, its existence may go unnoticed until discovery, making the retrieval and restoration process more intricate.

When you say a leak, does that mean that someone has got into the system?

Take, for example, a server crash-a situation where a server encounters a bug or experiences a failure while in operation. Such incidents occur periodically and can result from various factors, including power cuts. In the event of a crash, data may be lost. When dealing with servers containing several terabytes3 of data, pinpointing exactly what has been destroyed becomes a daunting task, especially in the absence of an inventory detailing the server’s contents. The lack of a comprehensive inventory makes it challenging to ascertain the extent of data loss in the aftermath of such events.

Are there any rules or regulations about archiving? Do you have to have duplicates or triplicates on the servers?

Indeed, there are practical uses for copies of data. When originals exist on a server, it’s customary to have additional copies, often referred to as "ghosts.- These copies may be stored on alternative servers or within a disaster recovery system4. This practice aligns with established customs and traditions within the field of data management.

That’s why it’s so important - and this is where we come to part of your job - to clean up properly.

Understanding who can access archives and their intended audience is crucial. Consider the example of a student application: it might find its way to the faculty administration due to the student applying for a master’s degree and undergoing evaluations by a jury and professors. This application could then be forwarded to various departments such as student life, mobility, and accommodation. Each department may have its own duplicate of the data, resulting in multiple copies across different parts of the university-potentially four, five, or even six times over. Having a centralized, single copy accessible to everyone could streamline data access, reduce energy consumption, and simplify the retrieval process.

And in your case, in your role specifically, how do you approach the cleaning and removal of archive items?

Recently, I’ve taken on the task of managing archives, a responsibility I previously handled in a paper-based format. The process involves deciding what to retain, what to discard, what holds historical or administrative significance, and what to transfer to the national archives. In addition, as far as digital technology is concerned, I have trained each new staff member. They’ve already adopted certain habits and customs. For example, they don’t print out their e-mails, they clean their desktops. They are aware that saving archives on desktops poses a risk of loss in the event of a computer crash, so they diligently store them on servers. We’ve established processes and provided guidelines to direct them on how to organize and file documents on the servers.

To further instill these practices, I conduct individual or group training sessions. During these sessions, which often involve coffee and croissants, we dedicate time to deleting and destroying unnecessary documents. Using a whiteboard, I guide the team on deciding whether to keep, reclassify, or destroy specific documents as we clean up the servers. While we’ve achieved tangible progress in clearing out documents like PDFs, Word files, and notes, the larger challenge lies in dealing with extensive databases, including audiovisual and photographic databases. These databases demand a meticulous approach to identify and sort through folders on individual computers, each labeled with names like "Jean-Paul archive- or "Jean-Pierre archive.- Identifying these folders is crucial for uncovering duplicates and pinpointing documents that may need deletion in accordance with RGPD5 regulations. It essentially involves creating a comprehensive map to guide our efforts in working on and deleting specific documents.

And in relation to that, do you think that artificial intelligence could be a help in the future, or would be capable of it, or would help save more time with mapping and classification?

Certainly, consider the recent action with the FHSE Masters administrators as an example. In a room with around ten participants, we collectively worked for an hour and a half, successfully destroying about 5,000 documents. Undoubtedly, an artificial intelligence system could potentially identify even more documents if it operated overnight, contingent on its calibration. Currently, we collaborate with the Mediacenter, utilizing software called Cat DV, an acronym for Catalogue Digital Vidéo. While not fully artificial intelligence, it is an application that facilitates the addition of metadata to documents and aids in tracking down various document types based on our calibration. It significantly accelerates the process of identifying items. Considering the promising capabilities of such applications, the integration of artificial intelligence in our workflows is certainly a possibility worth exploring.

I’m aware that in the collective imagination, the idea of utilizing artificial intelligence in archival work can be perceived as complicated. As an archivist, I recognize that delving into someone’s office can be a sensitive matter. Introducing artificial intelligence into this context might face resistance, as archives represent not only institutional memory but also personal recollections. There’s a certain reluctance to allow any entity, be it artificial intelligence or a human, to search through our collective and personal memories. Understanding this emotional attachment to archives is crucial when considering the introduction of new technologies in the field.

It reminds me a bit of Indiana Jones. What’s the most amazing thing you’ve come across in your research?

In the basement of Limpertsberg, I stumbled upon archives dating back to the French Revolution. These included inventories of cannons and ammunition belonging to the Sambre-et-Meuse army6, stationed in Luxembourg. Among my discoveries were original plans of certain buildings in Luxembourg and documents resembling Gestapo records from Luxembourg. These findings offer a fascinating glimpse into historical aspects that may have been forgotten or overlooked.

Do you then give these documents to the national archives?

They are in the national archives, yes. They are inventoried. Reflecting on my past work experience in Paris, where I was employed by a sizable social landlord, I was tasked with organizing and cleaning tenants’ files, particularly in response to privacy concerns raised by the CNIL in France. During this process, I uncovered an array of intriguing and often surprising details about the occupants. From makeshift Buddhist temples to clandestine brothels, nightclubs, and even shooting galleries, the diversity of what I encountered was truly remarkable.

Delving further into historical records, I unearthed numerous denunciations of Jews, revealing the darker aspects of the past. The documents also shed light on the challenges of immigration in the 1960s and 1970s, providing valuable insights into societal attitudes of the time. Additionally, I came across documents that illustrated the antiquated perspectives on women, including disturbing notes like, "Yes, the gentleman beats his wife, but only within reasonable hours not to disturb the neighborhood.- These documents serve as powerful testimonies to the attitudes and practices of bygone eras, emphasizing the role of archives as preservers of collective memory.

Is this your favorite part?

My work is a whole. As a historian, I appreciate the value of every document that contributes to our understanding of the world. However, I also have a penchant for order and functionality. It brings me satisfaction when people acknowledge that things are now easier to find. Over the past several months, if not years, I’ve dedicated myself to compiling a comprehensive list of master’s theses. Navigating between the efforts of the library and various faculties, managing both digital and paper records has proven challenging. My objective is to unify all available digital and paper documents into a single inventory, streamlining the process of locating these theses. Today, I can proudly say that I’ve accumulated the master’s theses produced by the FHSE over the last 10-12 years. However, the work continues. Recently, I stumbled upon a stash of CDs, necessitating the hunt for CD players-an unconventional task in an era where CD players have become obsolete. This illustrates the ongoing effort to recover and integrate documents that weren’t on servers and didn’t exist in paper form.

Can you estimate what the University’s archives represent after 20 years, in terms of paper and digital archives?

Navigating the complexities of my role as a service provider has been challenging. I have never had a comprehensive overview of the entire organizational structure, having never directly worked for departments like HR or Finance. The volume of paper records across various entities is vast, and each entity inherited historical data from predecessor schools dating back to the 19th century. Even within the FHSE, where I manage the flow of administrative data, my insight is limited. While I oversee administrative staff in the deanship and research departments, my access to teachers and researchers is restricted to those who voluntarily approach me. Typically, such interactions occur when they have completed their work, sharing their findings or materials. Moreover, not everyone is aware of my role.

To address this, I’ve established communication relays on each floor and in every department to encourage people to approach me with their queries. However, this doesn’t cover all cases. Recently, a researcher who had just finished his doctoral thesis and was leaving the university contacted me to hand me over the questionnaires he used for his research. Initially expecting a couple of boxes, I ended up with 40 boxes, highlighting the unexpected nature of my responsibilities.

Conducting a comprehensive audit is a critical need for an archivist. Such an audit should assess the volume of paper records and include access to servers. However, determining the extent of an archivist’s access poses challenges. Questions arise regarding access to documents of high-ranking officials, such as the rector or vice-rector, adding another layer of complexity to the role.

Is it your aim to extend the clean-up initiatives you’ve set up? Is there a desire to do so?

Yes, of course. The initial action proved to be highly successful. We are in the process to replicate a similar initiative with the administrative staff of the bachelor’s programs and various dean’s offices. Regarding HR and finance, our plan is to conduct these actions annually or biannually. Ideally, we envision extending this approach across the entire University, with each department participating in this effort on a rotating basis, potentially on a weekly schedule. As an example, the Grand Est region organized a designated day for the entire administration to focuses on cleaning up mailboxes and servers. Additionally, another day is dedicated to organizing and decluttering paper archives in their offices. These actions are not only straightforward to implement but also yield tangible and quantifiable results. The positive response to these initiatives is evident, making them well-received among the University community.

What advice would you give for good archive management?

Effective organization and management of digital and paper archives can be achieved through straightforward actions. For email ma nagement, consider organizing folders based on subjects and implementing automated sorting. Calibration can be set to automatically delete unfiled items in a mailbox every six months, reducing clutter significantly. Additionally, avoid storing professional archives on the desktop; instead, utilize shared servers for long-term storage.

Print sparingly; with today’s screens equipped with blue filters, reading documents digitally is more comfortable. Resist the temptation to print and try to delete working versions and unnecessary iterations, keeping only the final version.

During the summer or through short, regular intervals, dedicate time to sort through folders, archive, and eliminate duplicates. Collaboration with colleagues or, if available, the assistance of an archivist can streamline this process. For paper archives, similar principles apply - not every document, especially working documents, needs to be retained. Recycling paper is environmentally responsible, and unnecessary documents do not need to languish in basements.

In the FHSE, seeking guidance from the archivist is a common practice. Collaborating with the archivist allows for questions about the necessity of certain documents and facilitates decisions about their retention or disposal. It’s crucial to recognize that not every document, such as student applications, PhD applications, or payslips, needs to be retained. Understanding who has the responsibility and authority to keep specific documents is key to efficient and purposeful archiving.

Ultimately, the tricky part is juggling security, sustainability, and the future of GDPR and regulations.

I advocate for the widespread implementation of centralized digital archiving systems throughout an entire entity. Drawing from past experiences at certain European institutions, I’ve observed the effectiveness of utilizing a central software package where all documents are stored. In such systems, access can be precisely defined. For instance, considering the scenario of a student application, under the current decentralized approach, a teacher seeking information may need to contact multiple departments such as faculty administration, SEVE, mobility, or the doctoral school, resulting in a complex network of contacts.

A more efficient solution would involve a centralized document accessible through read-only access granted by computer scientists or archivists. This centralized system would eliminate the need for multiple copies, allowing authorized individuals to retrieve information directly from the computer through temporary access. Considering the sensitive nature of personal data, adhering to GDPR regulations, this approach minimizes the risk of data loss, leakage, or interception by malicious actors. Adopting centralized digital archiving not only streamlines access but also enhances data security.

1 Digital technology mobilises many resources, emits 2.5% of greenhouse gas emissions and consumes around 10% of electricity in France (source: ADEME). It’s always tricky to assess the ecological impact of digital technology because you have to take into account the entire life cycle and all the associated services (data centre, internet network, reading tools, etc.). What’s clear is that reducing the digital/physical debate to the simple impact of paper printing is reductive.
2 https://data.legilu­x.public.l­u/filestor­e/eli/etat­/leg/loi/2­015/07/25/­n1/jo/fr/h­tml/eli-et­at-leg-loi­-2015-07-2­5-n1-jo-fr­-html.html
3 1 TB represents an average of 250,000 photos, 500 hours of video or 6.5 million pages of documents. That’s 1,300 paper filing cabinets.
4 Disaster recovery is an organisation’s method of regaining access and functionality to its IT infrastructure after events like a natural disaster, cyber-attack, or even business disruptions.
5 The acronym GDPR stands for "General Data Protection Regulation-. The GDPR governs the processing of personal data within the European Union.
6 Army of the French Revolution.