By Kate Cumming
At the recent Recordkeeping Roundtable event ‘Drawing insight and inspiration from tradition: The Australian Series System and digital recordkeeping’ I spoke about the history of the series system. Referencing Terry Cook (and Shakepeare!), I argued that ‘What is past is prologue’; that is we need to understand our past in order to move into the future.
While acknowledging that its name has always been confusing and misleading, I argued that the series system has always been a descriptive methodology that’s continuum-based, applicable to multiple entities, context focused, powered by entity relationship data and concerned with evidence as much as information. Although it has been in operation for more than 50 years, it is just as applicable to the recordkeeping environment today as it was 50 years ago.
I then explored the history of the series system to try and explain its evolution, its impact and its ongoing relevance. In the 1950s and 1960s the Commonwealth Archives Office (now the National Archives of Australia) used the record group as its descriptive methodology. In this form of record description, the records created by one organisation, agency or administrative unit are grouped and managed together as one single, cohesive unit.
The American theorist Theodore Schellenberg said in his landmark publication The Management of Archives (1965), that the boundaries of a record group should be influenced by ‘the desirability of making the unit a convenient size and character for the work of arrangement and description and for the publication of inventories’. Given the volumes of records that had to be dealt with in American archival environments, description in the record group was driven by practicality and research needs, not notions of evidence and accountability.
Ian Maclean, the head of the Commonwealth Archives Office had a different focus that lead to an unease with the record group approach. Maclean argued that records were ‘pieces of paper constituting evidence of particular administrative actions of which they formed a part’ and was concerned with descriptive approaches that viewed records as ‘pieces of paper containing information about subjects’.(Maclean, 1959, ‘Australian Experience in Record and Archive Management’, contained in The Records Continuum (1994))
Maclean’s concerns were driven by the dynamic political environment in Australia. Clive Smith quotes the following example in his article on the series system in Archivaria 40, Fall 1995. He states that between 1916 and 1945, the function of immigration restriction was transferred between the Departments of External Affairs, Home and Territories, Home Affairs, Prime Minister’s, Markets and Migration, Prime Minister’s, Transport, Interior I, Interior II and Immigration. In thirty years, the function was transferred between 10 different agencies.
In the record group approach, where records are described and managed as part of their creating or transferring institution, this level of change and dynamism was increasingly unsustainable. Record group structure could be made to work, but forcing records into this structure, would deny their full administrative context or would result in the destruction of original order.
In his series of articles in Archives and Manuscripts (contained in The Arrangement and Description of Archives Amid Administrative and Technological Change), Peter Scott describes scenarios where the Commonwealth Archives Office was forced to deal with records that had been transferred by one organisation that were actually created by another organisation, series that were split over time and were transferred by 2 or 3 different agencies, and series that were created by 3 or 4 different agencies over time. Chris Hurley has said of the Australian archival environment at the time that ‘There simply were no archives in the old-fashioned sense (a stable, finite, physical body of records…) to be described’. (‘The Australian (Series) System: An Exposition in The Records Continuum)
What emerges through Scott’s body of work is also his fundamental belief in archival principles. He believed that archivists and the descriptive and management strategies they implemented must adhere to the principles of:
- the importance of context
- the value of original order
- the understanding that records follow function and
- archivists must be concerned with the protection and preservation of recordkeeping systems.
At the Commonwealth Archives Office in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no public research imperative. The Commonwealth Government was established in 1901 and the Archives operated under a 50 year access rule. The prime concern of the CAO therefore was the appropriate management of government records in their creating environments, rather than facilitating the needs of researchers.
Like the record group, the series system did utilise a physical structure – the record series – as its practical basis, but instead of physically arranging records to reflect their administrative history, the series system used descriptive strategies to fully represent record context. And suddenly whole new world opened up.
Using the series system, it became possible to describe relationships between records, between creators, between business processes, up and down, across and around, now and through time. Suddenly records were no longer constrained by the physical, subject to physical limitations.
In his key article from The American Archivist, ‘The Record Group Concept: A Case for Abandonment’ (1966) Scott said: ‘As archivists we regard respect des fonds as one of our cardinal principles of arrangement. By this we accept that records and archives derive much of their meaning and value from the administrative (or other) context in which they were originally created; furthermore we maintain that preservation of the association between archives and their original historic context is vital to a full and proper understanding of the evidence and information they contain.’
The defining features of the series system were and are:
- the separation of record description from context description (all entities in the series system are separate descriptive products so record and agent descriptions no longer have to be merged into one record group grouping)
- the multiple relationships are enabled between and among related entities
- scalability – many levels of description can be layered and interrelated to represent any contextual environment, immediately and through time
- the series has nothing to do with it!
Terry Cook has said in ‘What is Past is Prologue’ (Archivaria 43, Spring 1997) that ‘Scott shifted the entire archival description enterprise from a static cataloging mode to a dynamic system of multiple interrelationships’
Cook also said that ‘Although Scott worked in a paper world, his insights are now especially relevant for archivists facing electronic records where the physicality of the record has little importance compared to its multi-relational contexts of creation and contemporary use’. (What is Past is Prologue)
The series system is therefore a descriptive strategy with significant capacities in the digital environment. So how to we help series system description to evolve to meet the challenges of the contemporary recordkeeping environment? A few suggestions were that:
- it is possible that we are still too focused on the physical in our descriptive strategies. Description should potentially focus more on function and process and less on record and agent in order to align it better to record creation environments.
- we need to be aware of the nature and diversity of current of current records and apply descriptive strategies to these.
- we need to better define entity relationships in the digital world and resolve scalability issues
- we also need to improve our processes and map our requirements to contemporary systems and learn Bearman’s lessons: ‘archivists should find, not make, the information in their descriptive systems’ (Bearman: Archival Methods (Arrangement and Description), 1989).
In conclusion, there are key lessons that we can learn from re-reading the works of Peter Scott:
- learn and reapply the lessons of the past
- appreciate the value and beauty of theory
- acknowledge the value of adhering to principles
- good ideas (like the series system) take time
- good ideas take practice
- good ideas take risk
- good ideas take a lot of research
- know your environment
- 50 is the new 20! The series system may be 50 years old but it’s as applicable as ever.
- think beyond the physical problem or the immediate circumstance
- engage, discuss, share and learn
- the time for action is now.