Records as Evidence and Information Containers

Margot Note

Margot Note

November 01, 2021

How do we want to manage archival records? What foundational ideas–the theory and principles of archival science—support archivists’ work? 

The Traditional Archival and Records Management View

The traditional archival and records management view looks at records primarily as evidence of transactions. This view excludes information assets that are not “evidence of transactions” from the scope of records and archival management, and that is how these fields looked at it for many years. Although it was not explicitly phrased, the essential position was that they should be managed as paper was managed–using detailed file plans and records schedules–and that was the mental model behind the creation of records management applications. Organizing records according to a structure and mandating retentions based on content and function are sound principles, but they need to be adapted to the electronic era.

File plans and records schedules have divided the records into small units of the shortest retention allowed. The classic rule for constructing file plans was that if a subject file grew to more than ¾ inch, it should be subdivided to make the paper files easier to search. However, the major problem with the records as evidence view is that the information container side of the coin is often lost. Records are organized to provide context first and information second. Records are filed by transaction and indexed to allow certain types of information to be linked across files. That approach can be adapted to the digital world, but it requires rigor in assigning metadata that is frequently not done.

The Information Resources Management View

The information resources management (IRM) view seeks to manage records like data. A good IRM program knows its data, stores it economically (e.g., hierarchical storage), maintains data integrity and security, and promotes system flexibility and appropriate data sharing. In many ways, these goals make clear ideas implicit in records management goals but are based on data (records) as information assets, not evidence. The IRM approach focuses on managing digital objects as information containers and ignores the evidence of transactions component of records. That is evident in things like data warehouses and mashups that permit the analysis of data stripped of elements of context that are necessary for evidence. Finally, the IRM view does not look at preserving digital objects beyond the immediate need for them as information containers. 

The User View

The third view is that of the user. Users rarely think of the materials they have as records, which is especially true of digital objects. Their approach to organizing and maintaining documentation of any kind is for reference and reuse. Once a document has been submitted, they see it as someone else’s responsibility to maintain the official record. 

Users have three options for managing their information. First, they can print on paper. If the user does see a need to maintain a record, paper is often the “medium of record.” Their files may or may not correspond to the filing system the office uses. 

Information may also be maintained on the local hard drive, removable media, or another storage device. The digital objects are maintained for the personal use of the user and organized to suit operational needs. There is rarely any real management here; there is a lack of standard structure, metadata, naming conventions, and regular backup. To the extent that these things are done, they are done according to a system developed by the user to meet their needs and work habits. In this scenario, the user is the only one who can reliably locate and provide access to their records. 

Another option is to maintain the digital objects on a network server. Maintaining files on the network server ensures regular backup and the ability for others to access the files. However, a different question is whether there is sufficient uniform structure to provide the necessary context for records. Some applications, such as SharePoint or content management solutions, provide tools to manage records better, but how those tools are used depends on which of the three perspectives is adopted for managing digital objects in SharePoint. 

Evidence and Information Containers

The more modern view is that records are both evidence and information containers. Records and other digital assets are tied to a process or function first. The trick is to organize them by transaction, ensuring their authenticity, reliability, and integrity, but facilitate access for their informational value since that is the way they are most often used. To do this means that archivists and records managers must team with specialists in providing access, IT and security staff, and specialists in access restrictions (such as legal counsel) to provide the expertise necessary to advise the program staff on how to make the best use of the records they create and use. 

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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