An Interview With Barry Primes

Barry Primes

Recently, TSLAC Government Information Analyst Joslyn Ceasar had the opportunity to talk to a record and  information professional with extensive experience in and knowledge of the records management field. Barry Primes has spent 30 years in records management in the federal, local, military, and private sectors. Recently, Primes moved to Houston after retiring from the National Archives and Records Administration. Primes recently transitioned into a new role as the records management officer of the Harris County Appraisal District (or HCAD). We hope you find the interview both informative and interesting—we certainly enjoyed this discussion.

TSLAC: What attracted you to the records management field?

Barry Primes: Well, I have always worked with records, dating back to my days in the military when working in an orderly room or admin area. I worked with records programs such as MARKS, which is the Modern Army Record Keeping System. Today, they use something different called ARIMS, which is the Army Records and Information Management System.

My interest grew as I became a civilian and began working at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now USCIS) as a records management supervisor. It was there that I began to appreciate the value of an accurate and complete record. I observed the impact that those records had on the lives of immigrants and non-immigrants entering this country. In that department, we had a saying, a motto: “a file is a life.” Those are the same letters; we just transpose them to create a different word. So, over the years I’ve had [various] jobs, and since that time, I’ve never worked in anything else—it’s always been records.

I’ve worked as a records supervisor, a records manager, a records operations officer, and a senior records management analyst. I’ve also worked as a senior records management consultant, document retention and production manager, and most recently as a records retention manager—soon to be designated as HCAD’s records management officer—so I’ve been involved in records management for more than 30 years. I’ve watched it evolve from a totally paper-based environment to the world of electronic records management, digitization, records management applications, and a host of smart technology to identify, collect, and manage data and records. Initially, I needed a job. As time progressed, I found that I liked the job, and the job became my career, and I developed a passion for it.

TSLAC: What are the differences between working for the federal government versus a local government (albeit a really large one) in an RIM capacity?

BP: Not much difference at all. In fact, I’ve discovered that both are governed by very similar requirements. The Texas Records Act and the Federal Records Act are almost in total alignment. Organizations such as local and federal government agencies encounter some of the same records and information management program issues and impediments, as well sharing parallel levels of maturity. They use very similar, if not the same, technology and practices. I actually find that there’s more of a difference between the private sector and the government than there is between one government office to the next—so I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of difference. As a matter of fact, when I started working at HCAD, I said, “Wow, I feel just like I’m working at a federal government agency!”

TSLAC: What federal work lessons have you learned that can translate to your current job? For instance, FERMI (Federal Electronic Records Modernization Initiative) is a big project for federal agencies at the moment?

BP: That’s right! I’m sure you know that the majority of the records being created today are born digital. Generally, they’re created within systems that are designed to manage the work processes that the business units are using, but they lack the ability to manage the full life cycle of a record. For example, many of them do not manage the retention and disposition requirements. That means that some of these systems may require purging or some other external process for disposition. Records may remain in those systems and never be properly disposed of. Here’s a good suggestion for them: in keeping with the premise and the purpose of programs such as NARA’s Federal Electronic Records Modernization Initiative, I would encourage all organizations—not just HCAD—to consider including every stage of the records life cycle when they’re developing or deploying proprietary E-Systems. I would also suggest that they manage and maintain a complete list of the citations and/or requirements such as; regulatory, legal, or business requirements that govern the retention and disposition of their work products (records).

I recommend using a standard such as, the Department of Defense Standard 5015.02, which is the Electronic Records Management Software Application Design Criteria Standard as a guide to help them develop and or design E-Systems that will manage the full records life-cycle. Too often business units focus primarily on their work processes. They don’t think of the work product that they’re creating as a record. Their concern is, “Can I automate my work process so that I don’t have to deal with it manually?” They don’t think about [how] to manage those records or work products. So my recommendation is to use some type of standard like DOD 5015.02 to design or develop an E-System (Records Management Application) that will manage the records full lifecycle.

TSLAC: Are most federal government entities aware that there are certain standards they must follow regarding records management? (In our experience, some local governments do not realize that there are state standards they must follow until they contact us).

BP: When I was at the National Archives and Records Administration I had the pleasure of working with agencies just as you stated. I worked with the Security and Exchange Commission, the U. S. Treasury, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Animal Plant Health and Inspection Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, to name a few. I’ve also worked in the private sector (oil and gas industry, financial institutions, and property tax) … and I’ve discovered that most of them are not totally aware of the numerous requirements—either regulatory, legal, or business—that govern how they manage records.

So I believe, and I stated earlier, that it is prudent and necessary for the success of any records and information management program that they understand and are aware of the citations and requirements that drive the creation, use, maintenance, retention, and disposition of their work products (records). Their work products can be records or documents (transitory or intermediary) – it doesn’t matter, but they need to understand what governs or drives the creation and use of that work product. When they understand the value of the record that they’re creating, I’m certain that they will appreciate the effort involved in managing it. Most federal and or local government agency employees have issues because they don’t know or understand the particular standards and requirements that govern the management of the records they create.

TSLAC: Why do you think records management is important for local, state, and federal governments?

BP: I think that records management is important because—I have this analogy that I use all the time—”records management is to an organization as a hub is to a wheel. If you take the hub out of the wheel, the wheel can’t roll. If you take records management out of a corporation, it can’t function.” Records have been kept for centuries; one example is the Bible with thousands of years of history. So, without them [records], our local, state, and federal government programs will not progress. I like to say that “Records help us learn from the past, live in the present, and plan for the future.” Yes, you have my permission to use it. [Laughs.]

TSLAC: Finally, which city is cooler: Houston or DC?

BP: Really, you had to ask that question? [Laughs.] This is really hard for me, because I like them both. Both are cool in their own way. I’ve spent a lot of time in the DMV (the DC-Maryland-Virginia area). What I like about the DMV is the climate, but I don’t like the congestion. I like having room to roam, you know? I’m an avid bike (motorcycle) rider. I love riding my bike, and in DC I just didn’t feel comfortable with all of the hills and deer walking along the sidewalks (especially in Maryland). I like having the space to roam now [in Houston]. What I don’t like about Houston is the climate; but I like the ability to get out and, you know, spread out. I also like the economy here better, that’s an advantage. So, for me, having more space and the economy, I like it. It’s all good for me. I enjoy it.

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