Records Managers vs. Archivists – What’s the Difference?

To say goodbye to October, Archives Month, we think it’s time to explore the differences between the Records Management and Archives disciplines. Is it an unceasing rivalry, a harmonious friendship, or perhaps a little of both? Do records managers know anything about archival science? Do archivists even think about records managers?

In 1971, records manager Gerald Brown provided his take on the difference between records managers and archivists:

“The archivist serves the needs of the scholar, the historian, and posterity, whereas, the records manager serves the needs of business which is usually profit motivated and which is interested only in information that contributes to or protects that profit or the goals of the organization. To put it another way, the records manager is basically a business administrator and the archivist is basically a historian.”1

Now almost 50 years later, let’s continue the discussion…

Records Life-cycle

There are various models for the life-cycle of a record. Some organizations use a spectrum, some use a complicated flowchart, and no one can quite agree on how many life-cycle stages there are. However, most records managers and archivists would agree that there are three basic stages in a record’s life:

  1. Creation or Receipt
  2. Maintenance and Use
  3. Disposition

Archivists might argue that there is a fourth stage in the life-cycle: 4. Preservation. Usually, the bulk of an archivist’s work is carried out during this fourth stage. In fact, the archival record life-cycle could be said to begin at this stage. Records managers destroy the records that they are able to, then transfer the really important permanent records to an archives. Many records managers at large institutions may never think about these records again, once the archives has assumed custody. However, we know that many local governments do not have the benefit of automatically transferring historical records to an archives; they may need to preserve all permanent records in-house, performing the traditional roles of both a records manager and an archivist. Does this sound like you? Job descriptions in government work often blur the bright lines between records managers and archivists.

There is also often some crossover between the preservation skills used by records managers and archivists. Both professionals must know how to protect their long-term records from theft, alteration, and damage.

Archivists can also rely on records managers to be their eyes and ears in the “Creation or Receipt” and the “Maintenance and Use” stages of the records life-cycle. Records managers are often more involved in business administration and policy development, so they may be able to provide insight into the function and structure of many records—down the road, this can help archivists document the context of records.

Appraisal

Records managers and archivists may have different ideas about what “appraisal” means, and when appraisal occurs.

The Society of American Archivists defines “appraisal” as:

1. the process of identifying materials offered to an archives that have sufficient value to be accessioned

2. the process of determining the length of time records should be retained, based on legal requirements and on their current and potential usefulness

3. the process of determining the market value of an item; monetary appraisal

SAA Dictionary of Archives Terminology, s.v. “Appraisal,” accessed October 27, 2020, https://dictionary.archivists.org/entry/appraisal.html.

Records managers and archivists will find common ground in the second definition. Typically, we consider four different types of value when appraising records and their retention periods: administrative, legal, fiscal, and historical.

Some records managers may believe that archivists are only concerned with historical value, or that evaluation of historical value should be done only by archivists. However, both disciplines can provide insight into all types of record value. Records managers and archivists at TSLAC work together to consider records series’ value when developing the minimum retention periods and archival requirements on the state and local retention schedules.

Records managers and archivists must also combine their powers to prepare for disaster recovery. Records managers will know which records are vital to essential business functions, and archivists will know which historical records are irreplaceable.

Efficiency

Gerald Brown may have been on to something when he claimed that records managers are basically business administrators. This is an over-simplification, but it cannot be denied that records management departments are often charged with improving efficiency, keeping costs down, and streamlining information retrieval processes. In fact, Texas laws for local governments and state agencies include the phrase “reducing the costs and improving the efficiency” in their definition of “Records management.”

To put it simply, most records management responsibilities are concerned with how records are created and distributed today, and most archival responsibilities are concerned with how records were used in the past (or how today’s records will be viewed by future historians).

Records managers know that you can’t just keep everything forever. At some point, the paper will pile up, the email servers will reach capacity, and it will become impossible to sift through decades of records to respond to an open records request. That’s why RMOs create policies to encourage regular disposition and the migration of records to modern, searchable formats—they ensure that employees are able to locate and use records efficiently. Archivists are usually less involved with the development and enforcement of recordkeeping policies, but these policies, file plans, inventories, and business workflows do provide valuable context to archivists about where, how, and why records were created within the organizational structure. Archivists love to “respect the fonds“!

It may be that records managers are more concerned with the bottom line than archivists, who are more interested in the organization’s sense of history. However, both records managers and archivists are entitled to feel pride in their agency’s efficiency and its history. In Texas government, records managers and archivists all serve the same customer: the public.

  1. Gerald Brown, “The Archivist and the Records Manager: A Records Manager’s Viewpoint,” Records Management Quarterly 5 (1971), 21.
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One thought on “Records Managers vs. Archivists – What’s the Difference?

  1. In 1989, my glib reply to Richard Bradford (author of Red Sky at Morning) was that of the difference between archivists and records mangers was: “archivists are better educated; records managers are better paid.”

    More seriously, In 1954, Wayne C. Grover’s Society of American Archivists presidential address included the statement: “It is folly for archivists to even think of parting company, literally or psychologically, from the newly developed specialists in records management; and no less folly on the records management side than on the archival side. Our numbers are too ew; our common interests too important.”

    Both, before and afterwards, a lot has been written on the differences between the two groups. But in reality, many records managers are unconscious archivists and most archivists practice records managers. It is my opinion that archivists and records managers are two cultures separated by a common profession.

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