Managing Electronic Records in Archives

Margot Note

Margot Note

July 26, 2021

The management of electronic records is based on traditional archival and records management theories and practices adapted to the digital environment. A noticeable difference is that the preservation of records begins earlier in the digital environment.

For example, a fundamental assumption in archives is that physical documents can be stored for decades without additional attention and be fine; they can suffer from benign neglect and be usable. Conversely, digital objects need constant attention to remain functional over time. They provide an informed discussion of the definition of a record, which is evidence of an activity, and what constitutes an activity.

Lifestyle Management

The management of an information asset is often called lifecycle management. Lifecycle management is the idea that records have a life from their creation to their end—whenever that might be. For records management, at the end of the lifecycle, the documents can either be legally destroyed or, if they have enduring value, be preserved as archival materials.

The organization of records also serves as evidence of transactions as well as information resources. Their organization takes place on many levels, from what information assets exist organization-wide, down to how they relate to which documents need to be retained to document each business process. A vital aspect of the organization of records is the need to maintain relationships among the documents and understand their provenance.

Dual Perceptions

Two competing views of a record’s life exist: the records lifecycle and the records continuum. One might ask which is better? As well as better for what? Non-archivists find the lifecycle easier to understand because it clearly explains their role in the life of a record and, most importantly to them, when their role ceases and they transfer the management of their records to someone else. Archivists prefer the continuum because it gives them a role in managing records early in the process, which is extremely important in managing electronic records.

The Process Model

Another way to view records is through the process model. The process model shares with the continuum model the concept of continuous management of information assets—rather than specific sequential management stages that underlies the records life cycle. However, the process model adds four ideas of its own that are sometimes lost in the simplicity of the continuum model. Archivists should review them in terms of the long-term access of digital objects.

The first aspect is planning. The process model stresses the need to prepare for managing records at the beginning of the process if management activities are to operate successfully and efficiently. Planning for how the organization will maintain digital objects for the required time, sometimes decades, is essential. How will archivists ensure the preservation of authenticity and integrity of the records over time?

Another factor is the complex nature of management. The process model identifies the numerous activities that are part of managing records: assessing (assigning values including archival appraisal), preservation, and retrieval, and use, leveraging, and repurposing. Each of these activities needs to be identified and tracked. For example, if records will be reused, then ensuring integrity becomes a significant issue.

The third issue is the changing nature of management. As the uses of records and requirements for them change, archivists and records managers need to be involved. If records are migrated from one system to another, information professionals must ensure that the integrity of the records is maintained.

Lastly, one must consider the broad range of people involved in management. The process model does not assign roles or persons to these activities because the management of records involves many individuals, and their roles may change over time. In electronic recordkeeping, management will include the system owner, users, archivists, records managers, IT, and other departments, such as the legal office, depending on content.

Benign Neglect No More

Whatever model is used, information professionals, including archivists, have a stake in controlling an organization’s records from their creation until they are archived or destroyed. Where the archivist intervenes depends on the nature of the document. While physical records can receive inattention for years, even decades, electronic records cannot. Preserving valuable information assets requires identifying records, classifying them, and storing them, as well as coordinating internal and external access. 

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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