Electronic Records and Traditional Archival Values

Margot Note

Margot Note

November 08, 2021

Retention costs for electronic records are higher than for physical records in every respect, the only exception being the actual space it takes to store digital materials. But that downside is balanced because electronic records allow for the presentation and retrieval of information in ways that have not been possible in an analog world. 

Another critical point is that any record series is likely to shift from an analog to a digital format, so the repository will have to deal with the transition unless the decision is made to stop collecting something. In addition, in many cases, a digital record series will incorporate what on paper was several different record series, so teasing out the information required for appraisal decisions becomes more complex. 

Archivists grapple with issues and concerns about selecting and appraising electronic records and try to explain how they apply in different institutional environments, types of collections, and what this means for being an archivist in the future. 

Machine Dependence

Digital media requires hardware and software, which have changed dramatically throughout the years. A collection may have several different formats, with no information about how or when the records were created and not necessarily a way to find out.

Long Term Preservation

Once an archives makes the commitment to acquire a collection containing born-digital records and determines what the records contain, how the files are set up, how they will manage and preserve them, and how they will make them accessible to researchers, they also must commit to keeping them usable over time. To do so requires a significant amount of investment in hardware and software, equipment, skill, and labor. 

Manipulability 

Digital records are easily manipulated. Manipulability is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it increases the ability to use the data as it can be rearranged according to search terms. On the other, it is not always possible to determine its original form. 

Traditional Archival Values

Traditional archival theory remains relevant in the digital world. Think of how the characteristic of being born digital would affect the assessment of evidential and informational value. Do the more complicated ways multiple creators produce electronic records clarify or muddy the waters in terms of evidential value? Does manipulability bring informational value into question? Are these records more revealing because their creation, if appropriately documented, reflects modern social and organizational structures? Think of all the extra information in an email message beyond the actual content.

Archivists care about how records were created: the levels of activity within an organization, importance of that activity, uniqueness of information, the usability of information, and relationship to other records, as well as research value. These factors help archivists appraise records and make selection decisions. 

In a digital environment, traditional archivists will always be needed. In other words, paper is not going away, but archivists now must be able to meld approaches for both–sometimes in the same collection.

The Postcustodial Era

Electronic records are opaque, difficult to investigate by topic, and the emphasis must be on provenance and context. As a result, archivists have moved into a postcustodial era. While they may argue about the realism of records creators taking sufficient interest in the long-term preservation and access to their records, the fact that records do not become noncurrent according to the same life cycle means that more interaction with records creators is crucial at least in an institutional environment. The advantage of a postcustodial approach is that if the information is essential to the records creators, they will maintain the systems to keep it accessible.

Part of dealing with context is mapping relationships, which includes making connections among actors that illuminates provenance and context. This emphasis shifts attention away from the traditional archival functions of gathering, arranging, and describing records. Instead, it moves us towards how society (and its individual and institutional members) record, use, store, describe, and dispose of information. That translates into recordkeeping and helps us understand how the systems are being set up. 

Content, Context, and Structure

Records have three components: content, context, and structure. All three components also exist in analog files but with more transparency. The complications for appraisal in an electronic environment include not having records stored in one physical location; the content may not be all together, but stored in different places and logically imported into documents or attachments; the form and content are not constant; software changes can alter how the system works, and can alter data values and relationships. The advantage to figuring all this out is the value-add that archivists can provide by understanding these relationships and the information world within an organization. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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