By Angela Ossar, Government Information Analyst
Last month, I had the huge pleasure of traveling to New Orleans, LA to present a session at the Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA) annual conference. The Society is the regional archives association for 6 member states: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The theme of the 2014 conference was “Casting a Wide Net: Broadening the Archival Experience.”
Archivists are increasingly handling records management responsibilities as the Digital Age pushes them toward “early intervention”: if an archivist doesn’t take steps to preserve electronic records closer to the point of creation, anything from technological obsolescence to user error will render records unreadable or just inaccessible.
Unfortunately, records managers and archivists don’t always have solid working relationships with one another — and, in many places, the archivist IS the records manager (whether he or she is equipped to meet the demands of this dual-role situation or not). With that in mind, my good friend and colleague, Kristy Sorensen, suggested that we propose a session on records management for archivists. “Records Management for Archivists: Embracing the Dark Side” was born.
Why did we call records management “the Dark Side”?
I worked as a university archivist before I started working in records management here at TSLAC about 5 years ago, and the career change certainly felt like a 180 from what I’d been doing.
Referring to records management as “the Dark Side” was a tongue-in-cheek reference to what we presented as records management’s bad reputation amongst archivists. We talked about records management’s focus on improving efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and regulatory compliance (which diverges from more “noble” pursuits like scholarship and service that tend to be the mission of archives and research libraries), its unfamiliar acronyms and jargon, and its ultimate goal of destroying information (which seems to run contrary to what archivists are there to do — preserve and protect records). We also owned up to the fact that records management is just boring to a lot of archivists.
Of course, it’s possible we ran with the Dark Side theme because I work with a Star Wars
nerd enthusiast who happily provided us with the following meme that I had to tack up on my wall:
How can embracing records management help archivists?
We tried to dispel some of those myths that give records management a bad reputation. Regarding the “archivists are keepers, records managers are destroyers” assumption, we argued that records managers actually work to shepherd archival records throughout the whole life cycle — records managers want archival records to actually make it to the archives (with their readability, usability, and authenticity intact). We argued that even if cost-effectiveness isn’t really the archivist’s “problem,” it sure can help the archives gain buy-in from upper management — who may be more concerned with saving the organization money than protecting the research value of archival records.
As for whether records management is boring, I argued that records management is a great way to find out how an organization actually works: what are the workflows? Where are the bottlenecks? What do people actually do here (and what records come out of those actions)? From my perspective, reviewing records retention schedules (which tends to be the most, er, “low key” of my job responsibilities) can be a great way to just learn about how state and local government operates.
We argued that it benefits the archives to know what the organization’s departments are actually doing — it gives them a heads-up about what they should be expecting in the archives. And if the archivist can actually meet the record creators — while they are working with the records, not years later when a program’s been discontinued or all of the project staff has gone on to other jobs — it presents an educational opportunity for the archivist. The archivist can teach the record creators things like what a records retention schedule does, how using good naming conventions help people find information, or what file formats are best for long-term preservation.
What can records managers learn from archivists?
We identified three areas of the archivist’s expertise that could be of great value to records managers:
- How to preserve information. Archivists are trained on the long-term preservation of paper materials and, increasingly, digital formats as well. (Not to brag, but here I’ll insert that 10 TSLAC archivists and analysts recently earned the Digital Archives Specialist certificate.)
- How to organize information. Archivists excel at organizing information in a way that will improve discovery by researchers. In the archives world, this is known as “arrangement and description” or, more informally, “processing.” Archivists might be helpful in arenas like shared drive cleanup and file management.
- How to identify historical records. Archivists are trained to appraise records for archival value. Just like you might consult an attorney to determine the legal value of a record, you should absolutely consult an archivist to determine the historical value of a record. Not only do many archivists receive extensive training in archival appraisal; they also work with researchers enough to be able to know what information people will need to conduct research, now and in the future.
How can records managers help archivists?
We closed with a meditation on the commonalities between records managers and archivists. Both professions care about flexibility, openness, and adherence to standards. Both care about the integrity and authenticity of electronic records. Both care about appraisal. Records managers and archivists may serve different customers and work in different contexts, but we all care about records!
So, if you, the records manager, have the good fortune to work with an archivist, how can you strengthen that relationship? If you have no working relationship now, start with a meeting. Learn about what he or she does, and explain your goals and challenges. This might lead to joining forces to provide records management training, or perhaps meeting with departments together to discuss their challenges and work out solutions.
Want to see how deep this Star Wars geekdom really ran?
The slides are available via SlideShare: