Provenance the Web Magazine
ISSN 1203-8954 - Vol.2 No.2 Spring 1997

Ensuring Essential Evidence - Changing Archival and Records Management Practices in the Electronic Recordkeeping Era .

- Adrian Cunningham - International Relations, National Library of Australia
Adrian Cunningham

'The collective memory of a nation is indispensable if we want to understand who we are, to understand where we have come from, to better comprehend where we find ourselves and where we are going. Archives are the documentary base of this collective memory, which itself is so important to maintain and strengthen national identity ...' (Translated extract from an editorial in Avui, a Catalan daily newspaper, 1996)

This statement is as good a summary of the social role and significance of archives as I have encountered. But what prompted the Avui leader writer to pen a statement that would gladden the hearts of all archivists? The context is a controversy surrounding Catalan government records seized by the Castilians during the Spanish Civil War and housed ever since in the Archives of Salamanca. After sixty years this issue still burns the Catalan soul, fuelling public meetings and the rhetoric of politicians and journalists alike.

While the statement sits comfortably with the image the public holds of archivists, many archivists would point out that they do much more than preserve the documentary base of a nation's collective memory. By professionally managing good recordkeeping systems, government and corporate archivists play a vital role in preserving the corporate memory of their organisations. This in turn underpins corporate efficiency, governance and accountability.

Moreover, very few members of the general public would be aware that over the past five to ten years the archival profession has been busy reinventing itself. During this period computer-based means of creating and keeping records have become widespread. As a consequence it has been recognised that the archival and records management practices which may have worked in the paper-based environment are inadequate for managing the electronic recordkeeping environment. In the process of redefining strategies archivists have been forced to return to first principles in order to reassess their basic mission.

Last year the archival community in the United States was plunged into gloom when President Clinton appointed a former dairy farmer and Governor of the State of Kansas, John Carlin, to head the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Archivists bewailed what they saw as the purely political appointment of a man with no background nor apparent interest in the work of archives. The signs are, however, that this initial pessimism was misplaced. Reports from the US suggest that Carlin is embarking upon a vigorous program of reinventing the National Archives. As a newcomer who lacks the emotional and procedural baggage of the past, Carlin is facing up to the archival challenges of the coming millennium by first of all developing a clear picture of the basic mission of archives. In his inaugural circular to staff he summed up this mission in five words: 'ensuring access to essential evidence'. If this means reinventing archival concepts, processes and priorities, so be it.

The emergence of this new school of archival thought has been made possible by a fascinating tri-lateral interaction between leading archival thinkers in the United States, Canada and Australia. From an Australian perspective it has been particularly interesting to note the impact that the Australian input has had on the international debate. In large part this is a reflection of the high quality of much of the work that has been pioneered in Australia in recent years. It is also I believe a recognition of the contemporary relevance of the Australian school of archival thought, a school that for many years was considered an idiosyncratic irrelevancy by the international community of archivists.

In re-examining first principles, North American theorists found much to recommend the so-called 'Australian system' which was pioneered by Australia's first national archivist, Ian Maclean, and the Australian Archives' intellectual powerhouse and enfant terrible of the 1960s and 1970s, Peter Scott. A key element of this system was a rejection of the traditional North American division between the work of records managers (who work with current records) and archivists (who work with non-current or historical records). Intrinsic to the Australian system is the philosophy that if archivists are to have historical records to preserve they first of all have to ensure that the current records are properly created and maintained. This proactive philosophy rejects the notion that the archival mission is based upon the post-hoc practice of sweeping up inactive records as detritus or, as one commentator has put it, 'picking up after the kids'.

The advent of electronic records brought home to North American archivists the fundamental truth of this philosophy. The first sign of this awakened American interest in Australian thinking emerged in 1991 with the Australian visit by the Pittsburgh-based manager of Archives and Museums Informatics, David Bearman. During his visit Bearman learnt enough about Australian theory and practice to become intrigued. What followed was the growth of a symbiotic relationship between Bearman and the Australian archival community, a relationship that involved regular return visits by Bearman and an exciting cross-fertilisation of thought between the two. The timing proved crucial. As a major figure in the emerging North American discourse, Bearman was able to influence his contemporaries to pay more attention to Australian developments. Between 1991 and 1996 Bearman, his associates at the University of Pittsburgh School of Library and Information Science and soulmates at the National Archives of Canada and various Canadian archives schools, together with a growing band of Australian thinkers, turned archival thinking on its head.

Crucial contributors to the Australian end of the discourse have included: former Victorian Keeper of Public Records, Chris Hurley; Head of the Records Management Office of New South Wales, David Roberts; Queensland University Archivist, Glenda Acland; a team of policy-makers from the National Office of the Australian Archives; and the academic staff of the Monash University Department of Librarianship, Archives and Records.

In June and July 1996 the Monash Archives School ran week-long workshops in Melbourne and Canberra in which Bearman and most of the leading Australian thinkers and practitioners participated. Called 'Managing the Records Continuum', the intention of the workshops was to assess the progress that has been made in reinventing archives over the last five years, to bring participants up to speed with the very latest developments and to debate future directions.

The theoretical framework for the workshops was provided by the 'Records Continuum' model which has been developed by Frank Upward, Sue McKemmish and their Monash colleagues. In essence this model rejects the traditional 'life cycle' model of records which embodies a strict division between current and historical recordkeeping. The aim of the model is to promote regimes of integrated records management and archival processes. Rather than the life cycle model which posits clearly defined stages through which records pass, the continuum model posits a continuous series of elements passing into each other in which no separate parts are readily discernible. For example, what used to be thought of as the historical recordkeeping end of the life cycle has been reconceptualised in such a way that historical considerations can now be applied from the moment records are created.

Many of the workshop sessions focused on the practical meaning of the continuum model in the context of the implementation of recent innovations. Speakers from the Australian Archives and the Records Management Office of New South Wales described their recent efforts at designing and implementing workable strategies for the capture and ongoing management of electronic records. These strategies are based on the assumption that, in the electronic environment, archival organisations no longer have to assume physical custody of records in order to be able to fulfil the archival role of controlling and defending the records. The custodial debate has been probably the most controversial development ever in the Australian archival scene. Not only have the promoters of the new policy experienced difficulty in convincing government agencies of the advantages of the distributed custody model, there has also been significant opposition to the strategy from traditionalists within the archival organisations themselves. These concerns centre around the physical and functional fragility of electronic media, the consequent need for regular migrations of records across software platforms and the reliability or willingness of agencies to manage such fragile records over the long term.

David Bearman was able to suggest a path beyond the custodial debate. For the past three years Bearman has participated in a research project at the University of Pittsburgh, the aim of which has been to identify the functional requirements for evidence in electronic recordkeeping. The project has developed a set of standardised specifications which, if successfully implemented, will guarantee the creation, capture and ongoing management of complete, reliable and authentic electronic records of business and organisational activity. Essentially, the specifications identify the software-independent contextual and descriptive information (or metadata) which must be captured and preserved in electronic recordkeeping systems in order to ensure the reliability, useability and accessibility of the records over time. When these specifications are incorporated into electronic recordkeeping systems custody will, according to Bearman, become a non-issue. This is because there will then exist the capacity for 'virtual archives', that is archives which exist only in cyberspace.

The real issue is not custody, but control of records and the archivist's role in this. To guarantee the ongoing authenticity of records, control should always be exercised by the archivist. In that sense the whole custody brouhaha may have been an unfortunate distraction. What archivists should have been talking to their clients about is not custody, but good recordkeeping practices which make it possible for archivists to exercise the necessary control. With the adoption of good electronic recordkeeping practices, the archives can take physical custody of records should that be the wish of the government agency. Alternatively, should the agency wish to retain custody, that should be just as easily accommodated, providing everyone agrees that archives have responsibilities for controlling the records. In coming years it will be interesting to watch forward thinking government archivists try to work their way through the debris of the custodial debate and regain the hearts and minds of their internal and external constituents through the promotion of the benefits of good electronic recordkeeping and the application of the Pittsburgh metadata specifications.

My involvement in the workshops was as spokesperson for the personal records sub-branch of the archival profession. In recent years I have been critical of aspects of the post-custodial discourse for being too heavily preoccupied with current recordkeeping requirements in corporate domains and neglecting longer term social and historical requirements, especially in the field of personal records. I have been pleased, however, to note that many of my criticisms appear to have been heeded. In particular, the Monash continuum model takes a holistic approach to recordkeeping and explicitly addresses the sorts of concerns I have been raising. More research needs to be done on identifying the functional requirements for personal recordkeeping and socio-historical evidence. Following the completion of that research it will then be necessary to develop documentation/metadata specifications and strategies that fulfil these requirements. In the Pittsburgh Project we now have a good framework on which such research can be modelled. The major obstacle will then be convincing personal records archivists that, in the interests of durable recordkeeping, it will be necessary for them to become more involved in the records creation phase of personal records than has ever previously been the case.

A failure by personal records archivists to face up to these challenges will guarantee the wholesale disappearance of valuable records which are currently being created and maintained in electronic form by private individuals. The existence of large gaps in our documentary heritage will surely be viewed by future generations as the result of an abdication by today's archivists of their responsibility to ensure the capture and preservation of essential evidence of significant social and intellectual activity. While some years ago there was widespread pessimism about the realistic chances of archivists being able to preserve electronic records, the Monash workshops demonstrated that we now have reason to be optimistic. The challenges are great, but the tools and understandings now exist to enable us to overcome them.

- Adrian Cunningham
International Relations, National Library of Australia

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