Electronic Recordkeeping


Electronic Systems and Records Management in the Information Age: An Introduction

by Richard J. Cox
Over the past three decades that archivists and records managers have worked to cope with electronic information systems containing records, these systems have gone through remarkable changes. Change is the order of the day, as information systems feed on the increasing power of both the hardware and software. Systems designers, high-technology companies and information policymakers, among others, have produced a rapidly changing, sometimes volatile, electronic information infrastructure that can make obsolete solutions thought to be viable only a few years before.

In the past, swift change has not been a hallmark of archivists and records managers. These crucial professionals are committed to maintaining the integrity of records over time for legal, administrative, fiscal and corporate and societal memory purposes. As a result, by the start of this decade, archivists and records managers realized that their approaches for electronic records management needed serious re-thinking, prompting a series of thought-provoking writing, conferences and research.

From the 1960s through the 1980s North American archivists and records managers followed an ad hoc approach in developing methods for working with electronic records. Individual institutions, led by the National Archives of both the United States and Canada, experimented with means to ensure the continuing use of records captured in electronic form. Other programs looked to these institutions for guidance and solutions, or they created practical, stopgap solutions of value only to their immediate organizational environments. The rapidly changing nature of electronic information systems out-raced the work of archivists and records managers, and these professions realized the need to evaluate what had been done and what was still required. Professional insecurities had emanated in the shifting of priorities to electronic records management.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), possessing a broad mandate to lead in funding efforts ensuring the management of the U.S. documentary heritage, funded and co-sponsored with the Minnesota Historical Society in 1991 a conference on electronic records research issues. This was, surprisingly, the first effort to consider carefully research in this area (although, in general, hard and replicable research has not been particularly strong in many other functions of archives and records management work).

The resulting published research agenda influenced the priorities of the commission and led to sponsorship of a number of research and development projects that suggest the rebirth of a consensus on the mission and roles of records professionals rather than the development of solutions to all electronic records management challenges or issues. As my introductory comments should indicate, the past decade has only convinced many archivists and records managers that the search for solutions is a continuous process.

Similar conferences held in 1996 and 1997, the first at the University of Michigan and the latter in conjunction with Archives and Museum Informatics and the University of Pittsburgh, are recognition that archivists and records managers must work both more rapidly and concertedly with a wide array of information professionals to ensure that electronic records can be administered as needed for the benefits of institutions and society. It is likely that we will see such conferences, whether held in traditional venues or conducted electronically, as a part of the regular work of records professionals.

The 1991 conference was a pivotal event in the rebirth of electronic records management, pulling together a number of disparate strands of work and conceptualization as well as pointing toward future labor -- intellectual and applied. The conference identified priority research to be to "define the requirements of archival electronic records programs; explore the conceptual, economic and technological constraints on the long-term retention of electronic records; and establish criteria against which to measure the effectiveness of policies, methods and programs." At the heart of this research was the recognition that records, while crucial to every institution and individual, were not defined specifically enough to be understood by information professionals outside of the circles of archivists and records managers.

The research project funded in response to this agenda was the three-year project starting in 1993 at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences ("Variables in the Satisfaction of Archival Requirements for Electronic Records Management," NHPRC Grant No. 93-030). This project sought to research variables that affect the integration of recordkeeping requirements for evidence in electronic information systems, and it resulted in four main products or outcomes: recordkeeping functional requirements (defining records), production rules to support the requirements (making the functional requirements unambiguous, precise, economical, provable, and expandable and translatable into a software algorithm), metadata specifications for recordkeeping (providing a software independent record or a metadata encapsulated object, potentially eliminating the need for costly and complicated migration strategies) and the literary warrant reflecting the professional and societal endorsement of the concept of the recordkeeping functional requirements.

Starting at nearly the same time as the Pittsburgh project was a project at the University of British Columbia School of Library, Archival and Information Studies. This project, drawing on an older and traditional archival science (diplomatic), has gained worldwide attention along with the Pittsburgh project for offering some solutions to the management of records in electronic systems. In one sense both projects were part of a re-focusing on the fundamentals of what constitutes a record and how such a definition of record could better facilitate the management of electronic information systems increasingly being used to create and keep records. Most observers have recognized the commonalities of records definitions, although there have been interesting divergences in how the two projects understand the core of archival work (such as the matter of the custody of records and what such custody implies).

The work at Pittsburgh and British Columbia, the use of their products in different venues around the world and new opportunities to work with colleagues on electronic records concerns have led to some fundamental conclusions. Records are part of an organization (or even individual) seeking to be compliant to external regulatory and other authorities (this is best reflected in the notion of the literary warrant -- defined as the mandate from law, professional best practices and other social sources requiring the creation and continued maintenance of records). The need for a comprehensive set of requirements that could be used in both developing and evaluating software for the support of electronic records management still has not resolved whether all elements of the requirements are always needed or whether there are different requirements for recordkeeping for corporate memory, personal recordkeeping or other types of recordkeeping.

The idea of the literary warrant, seeking the endorsement of various professionals' literature and professional best practices regarding the management of records, supports the various elements of the functional requirements and relates to the idea of a compliant organization -- the latter a key component of the recordkeeping functional requirements.

Other aspects of the concept of a record have emerged from these projects. Records as evidence of transactions supported both by historical understanding of traditional archives and records management literature and by the use of the literary or cultural warrant surfaced as an extremely workable notion of what a record is, even in the modern Information Age office. This has enabled records professionals to be able to contrast the fundamental differences between records and information as viewed in definitions of various information profession literatures. Evidence provides an important, practical means by which to define recordkeeping functional requirements, and it has other possible benefits for other archival functions such as appraisal and descriptive standards. Instead of elaborate and highly subjective schemes to describe content, this emphasis on the record's evidence (that is, the evidence of a transaction that the record captures) provides a means by which to focus on such aspects as the record's origins in compliant regulations and the record's functions and reflection of activities. The idea of evidence and a compliant organization means that the archivist/records manager is seeking aspects of compliance (helping organizations discover external regulations) and applying them to their own organizations rather than merely seeking to save old records for often difficult-to-define historical purposes and values.

Records need to be the focus of records professionals, as the source of evidence of the work of organizations and individuals and for purposes of corporate memory and accountability; in other words, records provide both essential information and, in some cases, an historical or symbolic source.

Developing the concept of a warrant for the recordkeeping functional requirements has also provided a clue to a new mission. The idea of the warrant drives records professionals to cite external regulations, legislation and best practice as the primary mandate for the management of recordkeeping systems, rather than a more vaguely defined argument for the historic value for records or the rationale of fiscal efficiency and economy in administering records warehouses.

In this issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, we demonstrate the value of the new emphasis on the management of records in electronic information systems, beginning with the Functional Requirements for Evidence in Recordkeeping themselves, reproduced on the following pages. Then essays by Wendy Duff and Kimberly Barata reflect some of the inner workings and implications of the Pittsburgh project. The various reports by Mark Giguere, Clive Smith, Alan Kowlowitz and Kristine Kelly, and Phillip Bantin all show, to varying degree, how the newly developed definitions of records can be utilized in the practical work of developing records management standards and electronic records systems. It is from the applied projects in real institutions such as the City of Philadelphia and Indiana University that we will learn the most about where we need to go in the future in managing electronic records. The many policy documents listed from Web sites maintained by the International Council on Archives, the National Archives of Canada, the Australian Archives and the Archives Authority of New South Wales reflect the international scope of the effort.

More research and development is needed. The idea of studying the economics of complying with the functional requirements in particular organizational settings, determining what institutions are willing to spend to meet regulations to make them compliant, is one important need. Another possibility for substantial research is to consider the need for functional requirements for recordkeeping other than evidence, such as for decision making and corporate memory. We also need to understand the impact of electronic records on personal recordkeeping, and discussions about the degree to which individuals create records that are consistent with the principles generally associated with institutional recordkeeping have already provided another fruitful avenue for research. The notion of assembling a cultural warrant (authority for the maintenance of records for socially-valuable research purposes) could be another valuable project.

Records are important to organizations and to all of society. Headline stories in newspapers and newsmagazines on Switzerland banks and the laundering of Holocaust victims' financial assets and the deliberate destruction of records in an array of government investigations around the world (the PROFS and Internal Revenue Service cases in the United States and "Shreddergate" in Australia) are typical cases demonstrating why all people should be concerned with the management of all records, not just those in electronic form. Electronic records systems merely add new problems and concerns for the adequate management of records.

What is being described here amounts to the records professions' rediscovery of records, including a better message for archivists and records managers to take to the world. If followed up, further work using the recordkeeping functional requirements represents a shift in what archivists do, where they work and their strategies and tactics, allies and partners. Archivists need to ally with policy makers, business analysts and related groups, information technology standards setters, information technology designers and software engineers, the information brokers establishing themselves in the wild new world of deregulated information resources management and accountability agents. Records professionals have something to say, and it is important.

Richard J. Cox is an associate professor responsible for the archives and records specialization at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences. He was co-principal investigator of the recordkeeping functional requirements project and is co-director of the developing Center for Electronic Recordkeeping and Archives Research. He can be contacted at the University of Pittsburgh, Department of Library and Information Sciences, School of Information Sciences, Pittsburgh, PA 15260; 412/624-3245; fax: 412/648-7001; e-mail: rjc@lis. pitt.edu; or at www.lis.pitt.edu/~rjc.