By Anne Picot
Prompted by reading Kate Cumming’s posting after our inspiring seminar on the Australian series system I would like to offer some reflections which have occurred since then.
At the seminar I provided some contextual footnotes to the accounts of the operation of the Australian series system 35 years ago in the then Australian Archives offices in Canberra. The point I made focused on the Australian series system as a means of controlling records, not describing them, which to my mind implies primarily a post-factum research use of the records in the archives.
The records transferred into custody in the Australian Archives would often be as little as five years old and were extensively used by Commonwealth officers in the “official searchroom”. Critical to providing access to records in custody to Commonwealth officers was accurately recording which agency controlled them. The problems described by numerous articles about the Australian series system arose precisely because of the rate of administrative change so determining which department was entitled to access the records in custody was a daily issue. Tracking administrative change in dynamic relationships to records in custody was a contemporary documentation issue, not a retrospective administrative history project.
Yesterday at a NSW (Government) Records Managers Forum on risk management for records, it emerged that keeping track of multiple records systems of organisations (which have likewise gone through extensive sequences of administrative change) has again become a major issue for records managers. In addition in the current digital environment the ease with which large organisations can establish new systems and business applications in multiple relationships and dependencies fragments the recordkeeping system. There is no single mind view of the organisation’s recordkeeping, undermining systematic appraisal decision-making and risk assessment. At the forum I argued that we had to recover that practice of documenting existing records systems in organisations, identifying the business owner, the business activities managed by the records and the metadata generated by the recordkeeping processes.
This is not just analogous to the registration of records series of archival practice in the Commonwealth of decades past, it is a current imperative requiring the same analytical skills as Peter Scott and his successors. And it should be noted, while the relationships between agencies creating and controlling, and the records tend to be the focus of discussion of the series system, in fact the relationship between records series was just as significant. As Peter Scott repeatedly directed us, we registered records systems, primarily file series with their registration records and index cards as related series tied together by the description of the system on the registration form. Today the registration and indexing information is captured as metadata attached to the record item but the principles of analysis remain the same.