RAP-INF(2001)6 ... The Archives of the Council of Europe

Ministers' Deputies
Rapporteur documents

30 May 2001

RAP-INF Rapporteur on Information Policy


The Archives of the Council of Europe

(Document prepared by the Directorate of Communication and Research)





                1            Introduction

                2            Present policy and resources

                3            Providing electronic access to the Archives

                4            A new policy for the Archives

                5            Conclusion

                Appendix: Council of Europe Archive Policy 


1          Introduction


At its meeting in December 2000[1], the Rapporteur on Information asked the Secretariat to provide some information about the Council of Europe Archives (hereafter referred to as “The Archives”), with particular regard to:


-           The present policy and resources of the Archives


-           Providing electronic access to the Archives


-           Drawing up a new policy for the Archives. 


2          Present policy and resources


The Central Archives are managed by the Division of Documentary Information (Infodoc), which is part of the Directorate of Communication and Research.


Since their creation in 1949 the Archives have performed a vital function for the Secretariat.  Having always been there, the Archive office is occasionally taken for granted.  However, the expansion of the Organisation and developments in information technology have changed the nature of the work and made it necessary to rethink how the archives function.  Archiving standards have also evolved.


To keep its house in order, the Council of Europe needs to respect certain practices: correspondence must be kept;  contracts and signatures must be retained for legal purposes; financial and personnel information has be filed so that it can be easily retrieved.  Such archiving functions are performed in every department.  The costs are often hidden, since most of the staff involved have other responsibilities.


At the beginning of the year Infodoc began a thorough reappraisal of the work and procedures of the Archives, making the development and modernisation of the Central Archives one of its priorities.


What is in the Archives


The Archive collections fall into three categories:


-           official documents


-           intermediate archives


-           historical archives.


Official documents


The Central Archives act as a depository for almost all Departments[2] “official” documents.  Under “official” documents are included treaties, adopted texts, meeting reports, committee documents and statutory and commercial publications.


In practice, however, many documents are not deposited.  Part of the work of the Central Archives is to chase missing documents to ensure that the depository collection is as complete as possible.  This is a time-consuming activity.


The expansion of the number of documents produced and improvements in technology have made it harder for the Central Archives to keep track of documents.  It is often easier and more convenient for individuals to print documents from their PC without passing by the central printing and publishing services.  Many documents are now produced in this way.  This makes the Archive Office dependent on the individual who printed the document sending a copy of that document to the Archives.  There is at present no easy way of determining how many documents are produced.


This problem could be solved by the creation of a central register of document references that would also serve as a reservation system linked to existing document management tools.  A register would enable all documents to be traceable and would serve to harmonise referencing and avoiding duplication of references.


Intermediate Archives


Most Departments deposit files of internal documents regularly in the Central Archives for retention for a limited period (5, 10 or 20 years), after which they may be destroyed.  These collections are known as Intermediate or Administrative Archives.


A small number of services request their files to be retained permanently, thus avoiding any decisions about what should be kept.  This has led to large collections of material accumulating which have outlived their administrative value.


This is contrary to standard archiving practice.  In principle, the issuing service should specify the period of time that it will require a series to be kept in its entirety for administrative (work-related) purposes.  After that it should be put under the responsibility of the Central Archive Unit, who should select the material that is of historical interest and use standard archiving selection and sampling techniques to transform the collections from Administrative Archives to Historical Archives.


The implementation of the new Archive Policy will prevent Departments offloading large quantities of unsorted documents to the Central Archives, through the elaboration of detailed Departmental Archiving Agreements, which will specify how each series of documents is treated and at what stage material ceases to be of administrative value.


Historical archives


When documents in the Administrative archives are no longer required by the Department concerned, those documents judged to be of historical value are transferred to the Historical Archives.


The “Historical Archives” collection comprises some 3000 metres of files of internal documents. Classified by subject until 1979, they are now filed by provenance, in keeping with archiving standards.


There are substantial collections for every Directorate as well as the Private Office, Committee of Ministers, Parliamentary Assembly and Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. The European Court of Human Rights maintains its own archive.


Description and metadata


The main finding tool for the historical archives is a card catalogue.  For Intermediate and long-term archives, inventories are prepared by the depositing service and stored in the Archives.


For documents, the period 1949-1991 is catalogued using a card catalogue known as the “Indexage catalogue”, located next to the main library. Post 1991 records are entered into the Unicorn CERESII database.


Archives staff have entered historical records and inventories of intermediate archives into a small Microsoft Access database, accessible in the Central Archives only.  While the database is very useful to Archives staff, it does not follow standards of Archive description.


To improve access to archived materials it would be necessary to make the information stored in the card catalogues available online.




The Central Archives stock is stored in several basement areas of the Palais.  The major part of the stock in on level –2 in storage areas next to the Distribution.  There are separate lock-up areas for Treaties and Committee of Ministers archive materials.  Most materials are held in Leitz files and vertical files.

Although space is limited, with careful planning and the positive co-operation of the document distribution Department, it should be adequate for the medium-term.




The recognised standards regarding storage conditions for long-term archive collections, in terms of temperature and humidity, have never been applied at the Council of Europe, with the result that the paper is degrading at a faster rate than it would do otherwise.  This is a matter of concern.


Historical documents are also being damaged by frequent copying.  This could be avoided by creating digital copies of the most threatened texts, which would also minimise future costs of copying the texts and sending them out to external users.





Files from Departments are deposited on a daily basis in the Central Archives.  This is done using the “deposit form” that is available on the Infodoc website. http://info.coe.int/archives



When the retention period for intermediate archives is expired, confirmation is obtained from the author service before material is destroyed.



Access to Archive materials is given on authorisation from the Department concerned, unless the documents in question have already been declassified.


A 30-year access rule is currently applied to historical and administrative archives. For official documents, the rules on access adopted by the relevant body are applied.





The Archivist and a B4 member of staff left at the end of last year.  Both posts have been reallocated to other services.  The human resources in the Archives are now at their lowest level since the Archives were created in 1949.  There are two B2 staff with a B3 post about to be advertised.  The Archives are currently overseen by a B5.


3          Providing electronic access to the Archives


To date no historical archives are available in electronic format.


There are several repositories of electronic files at the Council of Europe which are open to the public: the websites of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly, and the databases of the Court of Human Rights, the Treaty Office and the Venice Commission.  Each has its own web interface, which is ideal for a specialised user, but confusing for somebody who wishes to search across all the Council of Europe resources.


To make archives accessible in electronic form involves development in several areas:


-           Input facilities (scanning)


-           Archive repository facilities


-           Document management systems


-           Retrieval facilities and user interfaces.


Input facilities (Scanning)


Few Council of Europe documents of the pre-1990 period are yet available in electronic format.  There is no centralised scanning facility.  The scanner of the Division of Documentary Information was provided by the Information Technology Department for the purposes of the website and is suitable for scanning small amounts of material only.


A scanning project, based on 38,000 adopted texts, session documents and debates of the Parliamentary Assembly, was drawn up for tender in 1999 and submitted to the Management Advisory Board (MAB) for decision.  It was planned as a joint project between the SEDDOC and the Secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly.


The project was abandoned because of the cost.  However, the exercise included a detailed technical specification for the scanning of Council of Europe documents, which will be valuable for any future scanning project.


Scanning historical documents

The Central Archives is the repository of most of the historical material of the Council of Europe.


Given that many archive services are now providing online access to scanned copies of their historical documents, there is growing demand for the Council of Europe archives to do the same.


An alternative to a large-scale scanning project would be to run a small pilot project bearing in mind the existing digital resources in other services.  This would have the advantages of giving some modest and relatively quick results, while enabling a proper assessment to be made of the conditions and issues that need to be addressed.


Archive repository facilities


There are plans are to begin a repository of referenced documents, by storing the copies that are send to print via the PRIDE system.  This would form the basis of an electronic archive, to be managed by the Central Archives.


An archiving module, known as “Hyperion”, has been acquired by Infodoc for its Unicorn CERESII database.  This will enable archive materials to be added to the database and made searchable via the Internet using the same interface.  Any digital object can be added to the repository.  Metadata will be input in USMARC format using the ISAD(G) standard.


To view an object in the system the end user will need the appropriate software for the format concerned.


For Council of Europe text files the PDF (for public users) and Word (for internal users) formats have been selected to enable easy access and reuse of the documents.


Document management systems


Proper archive management practices must begin in the Departments.  A sound document management procedure within the Organisation is a prerequisite for electronic access to the archives.  The Central Archives cannot cope with large inputs of material from Departments which are poorly organised, classified and labelled.


Improving document management within the Organisation was identified as a priority by the Computer Correspondents Working Group (GTCI) in their report “Needs identified and improvements suggested by the Computer Correspondents” (November 2000).


Discussions within the forum of Computer Correspondents on this subject will continue during 2001.  It is hoped that this will lead to a common definition of document management needs which can then form the basis for finding a suitable software solution.


Retrieval facilities and user interfaces


It is desirable to develop an organisation-wide retrieval interface to enable common searching of all existing resources. This is currently being studied within the “I-Hub” project managed by the Department of Information Technology in co-operation with other Council of Europe Departments.



The most comprehensive listings of Council of Europe documents available in the Council of Europe can be accessed on the Internet via the Unicorn CERESII webcat search facility:



This currently gives full bibliographic records of 60,000 Council of Europe public documents. Comprehensive coverage is from 1991.  A link is made to the full-text, where this is available in electronic format.  In total it contains bibliographic references for 123,588 Council of Europe documents and publications.



The Central Archives have recently opened a page on the Infodoc website: http://info.coe.int/archives


This will be used to add finding-aids, collection descriptions, explanations of procedures and reader guides.


The Archive webpages are planned as a public resource, so that developments in opening and automating the archives and introducing more transparency can be immediately communicated to the public. 


4          A new policy for the Archives


An Archive Policy Working Group was set up within the Secretariat in March 2001, with representatives from each Directorate and from the Secretariat of the four main bodies of the Organisation.


A draft Archive Policy was prepared by the Secretariat with the assistance of the Director of the Archives du Bas-Rhin, M. Van Reeth.  The Working Group met three times to finalise the document (see Appendix).


The policy describes the organisational structure that will form the basis of future management of the archives, which will focus on:


-           a network of archive correspondents


-           the principle of Departmental archive agreements


Archive correspondents

It is planned to ask each Department (i.e. Organ, Directorate and Partial Agreement) to nominate an Archive correspondent, to be the principal point of liaison between the Department and the central Archives.


This is not a new idea. The practice of having an Archive or Records Officer in each Department is common in national administrations.  It was introduced to the Council of Europe in the 1970s (under the label “Liaison Officer”), but later fell into disuse, leading to the coordination problems that are apparent today.  The Council of Europe already has a well-established network of Computer Correspondents, which facilitates the dialogue and transfer of competence between the Department of Information Technology and the other Departments.  The experience gained from setting up and organising this network will facilitate the reintroduction of Archive correspondents.


A training program for Archive correspondents will be organised by the Human Resources Division in co-operation with Infodoc, building on the experience gained from previous co-operation in archiving and document management training.


Departmental archive agreements

The range of activities of the Council of Europe make it impossible to agree a single system of archiving that will meet all needs.  There is little in common, for example, between the documentation produced and managed in the Council of Europe Development Bank, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Human Resources Division.


It is standard practice in central archive services to manage departmental relations on the basis of archiving agreements, which include “disposal” (or “retention”) schedules. A disposal schedule, drawn up by the Central Archives in consultation with and validated by the Department concerned, should list the different types of documents used by a Department and specify for each type of document for how long the documents be kept and at what stage they should be transferred to the Central Archives. 


5          Conclusion


In accordance wish the wishes of the Ministers' Deputies, the Secretariat is undertaking a thorough appraisal of its Archives.


A key feature of this is the new Archive Policy which will provide a framework for developing and harmonising archiving practice throughout the Organisation.


This should, in the medium-term, result in more efficient procedures, more transparency and improvements in the visibility of the Organisation.  It is argued that these benefits will be gained at no extra cost to the Organisation, since the time and effort spent on the appraisal will be more than made up by the increase in efficiency.


The appraisal is also revealing areas where significant progress can only be made if the necessary resources are found.





Council of Europe Archive Policy



1          The Mission of the Archives


The Mission of the Council of Europe Archives, hereafter referred to as “the Archives”[3], is to constitute the collective memory of the Council of Europe.


To fulfil this mission, the Archives, shall:


-           develop and preserve a comprehensive collection of materials produced by and addressed to the Organisation


-           make these materials accessible to authorised persons.


2          Preservation and access


The Archives shall:


-           ensure the long-term preservation of archival materials in all their formats (paper, electronic, photo, sound and video recordings)


-           ensure standardised archival description of materials according to international standards


-           promote access to the collections through:


-           provision of reading facilities

-           scanning of selected materials

-           development of databases to facilitate searching and retrieval


-           ensure that electronic materials are stored in an accessible format and reformatted if necessary, in co-(operation with the Department of Information Technology.


3          Collection policy


The Archives shall preserve on a permanent basis:


-           materials produced by the Organisation


-           administrative documents of historical value to the Organisation


Electronic versions of materials produced by the Organisation will be retained and made available according to the same principles and procedures as non-electronic versions.


Documents of administrative value to the Organisation will be retained according to the periods set out in the departmental disposal schedules, which shall be made accessible to the public.


4          Awareness


The Archives shall promote public awareness of the historical importance of its archive collections, using a broad-based multimedia approach.


5          Management of the Archives


The Archives shall be managed on the basis of co-operation between the Central Archives Unit and Departments[4], through a network of Archive Correspondents.  The modalities of this co-operation are as follows:


Role of the Central Archives Unit


The Role of the Central Archives Unit shall be to:


-           maintain the collection policy of the Organisation


-           ensure the integration of print and electronic collections


-           provide central storage facilities for records which require permanent retention[5]


-           provide facilities to access the archives


-           define archival procedures


-           manage document transfers from Departments to the Central Archives5


-           coordinate and promote the harmonisation of archiving practice within the Organisation, according to international archiving standards


-           advise Departments on good archiving practice


-           provide expertise and training


-           draw up Archiving Agreements with each Department


-           provide archiving services for Departments depending on their needs and defined in departmental Archiving Agreements.


Coordination with Departments


Departmental archives shall be complementary to the Central Archives.


Archiving Agreements


The Central Archives Unit will draw up an Archiving Agreement with each Department to:


-           specify the collection policy of the Department


-           include a Disposal schedule


-           specify the depository authority for the Department's materials


-           set out the conditions of access for the departmental archives.


The Agreement will be regularly updated.


Archive Correspondents


Each Department will appoint an Archive Correspondent with the following responsibilities:


-           participation in the drafting and maintenance of the Department's Archiving Agreement


-           coordination of the management of archive materials within the Department according to the terms set out in the Department's Archiving Agreement


-           liaison with the Central Archives Unit


-           participating in Archive Correspondents meetings.

[1] See Rap-Inf(2000)8 and Decision 735/1.5a.

[2] The European Court of Human Rights and the European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines keep their own documents.

[3] Responsibility for the Archives lies with the Central Archives Unit unless specified otherwise in a Departmental Archiving Agreement (Section 5).

[4] For the purposes of this text “Department” refers to the different bodies, Directorates and Partial Agreements of the Council of Europe. It also includes the European Court of Human Rights to the extent compatible with the Convention and the Rules of Court. 

[5] Unless specified otherwise in the Department's Archiving Agreement.



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