Flipping our focus

This week I got a strong response on Twitter for this tweet & image:

So I thought I’d share an excerpt from the talk, which was originally presented in Reus, Catalonia, as part of the Association of Catalan Archivists’ annual conference, bits of which were then included in a talk in Dublin organised by the National Archives of Ireland. Thanks so much to all my fabulous hosts.

Of course, many of these ideas are not new, nor are they mine alone. In particular, my Roundtable colleagues have written on this theme here on this blog and I’d encourage everyone to have a look (especially at ‘Reinventing Appraisal‘ and ‘Reinventing Access’).

It’s a chaotic, huge, exciting, threatening information landscape out there: so much of our content is in the hands of a handful of tech giants, everything is as-a-service, huge government and private surveillance systems are gathering data on our every move, we work in fluid, collaborative, multi-jurisdictional business models, business decisions are data-driven, personally controlled data is becoming a thing, everything is in the cloud – it’s all here now.

More data is made every day now than was ever collected by some of our traditional memory institutions. It is a time of unprecedented change and transformation in how we do business and live our lives.

Old recordkeeping and archives methods simply will not work in this environment. We need to think in radical terms about our role and how we need to reform so we can say truthfully that we actually did our jobs.

We must adapt, prioritize and refocus if we are serious about being enablers and protectors of accountability and memory.

So, what do we need to do?

We need to stop thinking of records as ‘things’ and recognise that they are – and always have been – the active embodiment of business, along with its rules, its participants and its outcomes.

Records are contextualized and controlled traces of events or transactions, made and retained – for a few seconds or millennia – for a variety of purposes, and to meet the needs of a changing array of stakeholders.

Records are constantly moving through new contexts and acquiring additional metadata and relationships to people, organizations, functions, processes and systems. To paraphrase Sue McKemmish, they are always in the process of becoming. Registers and files in our collections are, as much as the data in online systems today. That is what makes them such fascinating creatures!

In today’s business, governmental and other societal domains, the most critical records are increasingly likely to be made and kept in the form of sets of data, grouped and persistently linked to metadata that contextualizes and manages them. Any setup where this is happening is a system of records – whether well structured and managed or more ad hoc. Such systems can exist in government departments, businesses and in archives – in municipalities, startups and schools. At the most basic level, these systems are the same and do the same things, it’s just that their context, requirements and stakeholders are different. Understanding this, and also understanding that these things will change over time, is in the archivist’s DNA.

Looking after document and file-centric systems for records has, over recent decades, been the ‘bread and butter’ of many records professionals, but so much energy is expended here that we have failed to properly develop our role as providers of recordkeeping advice in the other business systems environments where, in most cases, records of more important and higher risk business are being made and kept.

This needs to change. We need to work at a higher level; we should think business activity and its systems, stakeholders and risks. This is about using the core recordkeeping technique of appraisal to understand the context we operate in, the business we do and the requirements for records that apply. This is a recurrent activity, done again as circumstances and needs change, which is done consultatively and accountably. This is how appraisal has, for many audiences, been redefined in the latest edition of ISO 15489 and it is essential to the more proactive strategic recordkeeping role I am describing today. I will explain more about work on a new guide to this type of appraisal later in the presentation.

Working at this higher level we need to flip the focus: from worrying about when to ‘destroy or transfer’ to determining where and how records need to exist in the first place and making sure that they remain available for as long as they are needed. And rather than being problematic, modern business systems are, I think, often good news for recordkeepers. Unlike the personal computing era starting in the 1980s, where business process and record-making became disconnected, record-making generally occurs within these systems as a routine part of their operation – records can be created already embedded in their immediate business context. We just need to ensure some of our other stuff happens as well – protecting the integrity of the metadata for each record, stewarding them safely through migrations, ensuring they remain readable and meaningful over time. Adding additional layers of context as records move through different existences, including coming under archival control.

We need to use risk management to ensure proportionate use of our time and expertise. If we work in archival institutions, we need to expend so much effort worrying about the backlogs that we inevitably have. If we do not divert some of our resources and personnel to the identification and protection of digital records that are out there now, or yet to come into being, we may as well give up and retreat to the basement. If we are working inside business or government we need to let go of some of the stuff we do where we are, frankly, bashing our collective head against a wall (asking users to save emails to document management systems; forcing them to ‘learn’ functions-based classification schemes for titling; worrying about re-structuring existing business systems to make records in ways that are familiar to us) and focus instead on the needs of high risk business activity and its supporting systems, and offer contributions to the management of these based on our unique knowledge and skills:

  • understanding, documenting and keeping up to date changing business, agents, systems, requirements, risks and stakeholders in order to define what records should exist and how we should manage them; and
  • defining and maintaining meaningful (machine executable!) relationships between records and agents, functions and mandates – over time and through change, in all kinds of systems.

In summary, us recordkeeping professionals – archivists, records managers, others – need to shift our focus and let go of some of our perfectionist tendencies. We need, in a world where skillsets are becoming more and more specialised, to be very clear about our contribution, and (some of us at least) must resist the urge to go out the back and keep listing that backlog. It’s not going anywhere, and if we sit and list while a fire rages beside us, consuming current and future generations’ rights and memories, then surely we have failed in our mission.

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About Cassie Findlay

Digital archivist and recordkeeping professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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