Provenance the Web Magazine ISSN 1203-8954 - Vol.1, No.2 - March 1996


Author - Greg O'Shea - Australian Archives National Office Canberra 2

The document concludes by outlining the Australian Archives current strategy for the management and preservation of electronic records and how we are establishing recordkeeping requirements in our own systems integration project as a practical test of the methodology.

Australian Archives strategies for the management of the electronic records of the Federal Government

In a virtual electronic world the need for archives to be held physically inside the walls of an archival institution becomes somewhat redundant. Accessibility becomes the issue not location. Should or could an archival institution duplicate all the computer environments of its clients ? Would parallel systems be economically possible or a sensible approach ? How would the archives keep pace with systems developments in its client agencies ? If an archives were to establish a standard electronic environment the records would loose some, or all, of their 'originality' in translation to the standard environment. Would these records so translated still be regarded or acceptable as evidence of agency transactions ? Paper records, generally speaking, carry these attributes (of originality) with them wherever they are housed. Electronic records in many cases do not.

The best prospects for preserving access to archival electronic records will be to retain those records within a technological environment:

In most cases, this environment will not be found in the custody of the Archives, but in the custody of the Federal government agencies which have generated the records originally or have actively managed them in the course of their operations.

Traditionally, archives have preserved the essential characteristics of records, (their content, structure, context and authenticity), by preserving the media on which they are recorded, in the original order in which the records were used and accumulated. In the case of electronic records, this approach will not achieve the objective of preserving access to the records over the lengths of time required for archives.

This is because the technology necessary to retrieve the records in an intelligible form from their physical carrier changes at a faster rate than the carrier themselves deteriorate.

For example, in computerised systems, records come into being through transactions which occur within or between systems and the interaction of both hardware and software. Such records will not necessarily continue to be retrievable over extended time merely because their component parts are stored on any particular medium. Access to or retrieval of electronic records created in specific environments will usually require a capacity to replicate those measures at a later time to ensure authentic versions of records are available, even though the technical retrieval process may be different.

It would be very expensive for the Federal Government to duplicate within the Archives every possible configuration of software and hardware which might at any time have been in use within the Government sector. To maintain generations of obsolete software and hardware as well as the technical expertise and environments would be extremely difficult to justify logically, practically and economically. Such an approach would result in wasteful expenditure of resources by the Federal Government, without any assurance that the records concerned would continue to be accessible or retrievable when required in the future.

It would also not be practical to convert the entire body of Federal Government records of enduring value to one standard medium or software and lodge that with the Archives. Standards for software and hardware are helpful in promoting compatibility and continued accessibility, but they themselves change over time in response to industry and commercial needs, so they provide no certainty in themselves of continuity over the lengths of time required for archives. Such an approach would also involve the unnecessary conversion of records at the same time as agency computer systems continued to have the capacity to regenerate them in their original business context. This would involve an increase in the overall cost to the Federal Government without any enhanced preservation of accessibility to the records.

Normally, conversion to a standard format will not be the most cost-effective alternative for the Federal Government. This approach will only be used as a strategy by the Archives where all other alternatives have failed.

Electronic records are generated in the computer systems which agencies use to facilitate their normal operations. For this reason, maintaining the accessibility of electronic records of enduring value over time should not normally require significant analytical, design, programming, or hardware resources over and above those which are normally required for the maintenance of the computer systems generally. As applications are reviewed and re-developed, the carrying-forward of the records and their translation into the updated softwares and hardware technologies can be incorporated into the established system development processes.

This requirement to ensure continued accessibility of electronic records of enduring value simply makes explicit in the electronic environment a way of meeting statutory requirements with which agencies must in any case comply. The Archives only requires agencies to maintain accessibility to records in this way when they are of such enduring value to the Federal Government as a whole that the cost of such an approach is justified.

Each review of the structure and operation of a functional computer application will not only be an opportunity to identify the record-keeping requirements for the revised system but also to review the retention requirements for electronic records which may need to be carried forward from the previous system to the new generation of technology. At this time specific measures could then be taken within the systems to bring about the creation of records with the essential characteristics outlined in the definition of a records and with retention periods assigned.

In such a review, a central criterion for determining whether such records continue to be carried forward will be that such an approach continues to be the least-cost alternative for the Federal Government as a whole in providing the required level of access to these records.

Normally the retention of accessibility to existing records will cost less than the potential cost of reconstituting such records in the future, even if such a reconstitution is in fact feasible. But the Archives recognises that there will come a time when the outcome of such a review is that the continued cost to the Federal Government incurred by keeping records actively accessible within an agency is not justified. In such a case, it is even less likely that the cost of keeping them accessible within the Archives would be less than it would be in the agency. Alternative disposal arrangements may need to be examined, including the option of preserving the records in less accessible forms such as computer-output-microform. Ultimately the formal disposal arrangements set out in Records Disposal Authorities (schedules) may have to be revised in a new authority where the records in question could no longer be kept accessible at all.

Systems integration and the functional requirements for recordkeeping 3

The Archives has established a Systems Integration project to review the operation of the existing functional applications running on the organisation's mainframe system. Our recommended strategy for building in recordkeeping requirements at the systems development or up-grade stage is being tested as part of this project.

The establishment of recordkeeping requirements are being determined using the following steps:

Preliminary investigation

Through the examination of documentary sources and the conduct of interviews the role and purpose of the organisation, the organisational structure, the organisation's legal, regulatory, business and political environment and any critical factors affecting or associated with recordkeeping are examined. Some useful questions to pose at this point could be:

Analysis of business activity

Following a similar process to the first step identify and document each business function, activity, transaction. Establish a hierarchy of business functions, activities and transactions and identify and document the flow of business processes and the transactions which comprise them. In our case this step has been undertaken as part of a business process re-engineering review.

Identification of recordkeeping requirements

Identify the requirements for evidence affecting each business function, activity and transaction which must be satisfied through recordkeeping. These requirements for evidence can be derived from an analysis of the regulatory environment to which your organisation belongs and from an assessment of risk or failure. Determine how each requirement for evidence may be satisfied through recordkeeping and creation of records and then document the recordkeeping requirements. Some questions to ask:

Assessment of existing systems

Identify and analyse existing recordkeeping and other information systems and measure their performance against recordkeeping requirements. Some questions to ask:

Identify strategies for recordkeeping

Identify strategies for satisfying recordkeeping requirements which may include adopting policies, procedures and practices, designing new systems, implementing systems in a way which supports the satisfaction of recordkeeping requirements, or developing standards. They may be applied separately or in combination to each recordkeeping requirement. Strategies should be chosen on the basis of the degree of risk involved in the failure to satisfy a recordkeeping requirement within the business function, systems environment and the corporate culture in which the strategy must succeed.

Design of recordkeeping system(s)

Design a recordkeeping system which captures and maintains access to those records which have been identified in the earlier processes. Ensure that the system supports, and does not hinder, business processes. Assess and, if necessary, redesign business processes to incorporate recordkeeping requirements. The metadata and contextual information required for the maintenance and accessibility of the records to be created and captured in the recordkeeping system should be identified. There is no point in creating records to begin with if they cannot be efficiently retrieved and used. Records should have links to business functions activities and be accessible in transactional order.

Implementation of recordkeeping system(s)

Identify and use a suitable mix of implementation strategies. Integrate the operation of recordkeeping systems with business processes and related systems.

Post-implementation review

Monitor the performance of the recordkeeping system and carry out random checks of the quality of records and control information. Assess the performance of the system and initiate and monitor corrective action.

It is worth noting at this point that while this methodology was originally designed for electronic records management it has been more recently concluded that the methodology is equally applicable to records and recordkeeping systems in any environment.

Where you enshrine these recordkeeping requirements into the new or pre-existing electronic systems you should ensure that the persons responsible for their development or up-grade take these requirements into account. This will involve teams drawn principally from Corporate Management, Information Technology and Records Management working in partnership. This team approach is common practice in the IT sector for systems and software development processes and this methodology is based on general systems development practice.


For many the challenge presented by rapid technological change and the requirement for the archival management of electronic records is sometimes too daunting or can be hindered by an inability to deal with technological issues. In my view waiting for a 'solution' is generally not productive, particularly if one has preconceptions about what I call, 'the magic software' solution. Preconceptions about potential software solutions tend to inhibit the ability to work with what might be available. That the solution might be strategic rather than technological might appear at first glance to be illogical. My view is contrary to this and I trust the contents of this document may draw you in this strategic direction. The issues and strategies outlined in this document do not guarantee success but are, none the less, a damn good place to start.

Greg O'Shea - Australian Archives National Office Canberra

1 - The content of this paper is largely drawn from Keeping Electronic Records Australian Archives Canberra 1995. Copies are available from me via e-mail The section on appraisal is based on an excerpt from my paper, "The medium is not the message: appraisal of electronic records by the Australian Archives" in Archives and Manuscripts, vol . 22 No. 1 1994 .

2 - Greg is currently Assistant Director Electronic Records working on electronic records policy at the National level. The Australian Archives is the archival authority for the Federal Government .

3 - see David Bearman 'Electronic Evidence: strategies for managing records in contemporary organisations', Archives and Museum Informatics, Pittsburgh 1994, especially p294. see also University of Pittsburgh see also Australian Standard AS 4390.1/6 1996 Records Management Standards Australia Homebush NSW ISBN 0 7337 0306 2.

[ Feature Articles | News | Departments | Resources | Credits | Home Page | Top of Page ]

Publisher NetPac Communications Ltd. © 1996 -- Corporate Sponsor - Internet Gateway Corp.

Last update Feb.26, 1996, Oct. 04, 1997