Letting Go of Comprehensiveness

When I interviewed for my current position of Records Management Archivist about 16 months ago, I was asked to present my vision for a records management program in a “modern university.” Although I stand by that vision and believe we are making good progress toward most of the ideals I enumerated in that presentation, there is one that leaps out to me today as particularly naïve:

“Records management services are integrated into and actively support the operations of all records-producing offices, departments and groups.”

Through this characteristic, I was attempting to encompass both the ideal of comprehensiveness and the value of records management to the daily activities of the campus. It is the former of these, comprehensiveness, which now feels the least realistic of all my stated goals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have nearly abandoned it in favor of a strategically limited approach that, while it makes sense for my context, I have struggled to find support or guidance for in the records management literature.

Although the ISO standard on records management does not use the term comprehensive, it does define the very field itself as “responsible for the efficient and systematic control” of records and the field has routinely interpreted “efficient and systematic” to imply comprehensive. For example, ARMA states in the Information Governance Maturity Model that the Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles (GARP) are “essential for … designing comprehensive and effective information governance programs.” Similarly, Shepherd and Yeo write in their records management textbook that RM programs should be “effective across the organization as a whole” (p. 22).

Yet this ideal, while frequently embraced, is not the reality for many records management practitioners, especially those who are based in archives. A survey conducted by the Lone Arrangers Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists in summer 2012 found that, of 182 respondents, only those working in a business or government repository were likely to have “a centralized/comprehensive records management program … in the organization.” The remaining 146 respondents were more likely to have a “decentralized” program, be building a program or have nothing at all in place.

This survey was used to underpin guidance published in January 2013 titled Records Management for Lone Arrangers. This guidance, while concise, basic and potentially very valuable to its audience, is also very traditional in that it implicitly promotes a comprehensive approach that begins with a records survey of “information at an institution” (p. 11) and progresses through the development of a retention schedule that, if functions-based, requires that “you must determine all the key functions within your institution” (p. 15). What if this comprehensive approach is neither realistic nor desirable, however?

In the field of born-digital archives, there has been a movement over the past few years to encourage practitioners, especially those with limited resources, to begin to tackle what can seem like insurmountable or incomprehensible problems through very specific, practice-based guidance. Propelled by the urgency of digital preservation concerns, Chris Prom, OCLC Research, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance and others have promoted the need to do something over the need to pursue a single, absolute ideal. As Ricky Erway wrote in one of the OCLC reports, practitioners should begin by embracing four principles, the third of which is, “Don’t let the first two principles be obstacles to action. “

This shift feels similar to the shift that has occurred as the principles of “MPLP” have gone from radical or exotic to typical and commonsense. No longer are archival processors expected to fully process one collection before moving on to the next, an approach that led over the course of decades to unmanageable backlogs. Instead, flexible, iterative, context-dependent methodologies have been developed that, like the guidance on born-digital materials, allows practitioners a concrete place to start when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges.

For me and, I suspect, many others who are working to build records management programs, the most seemingly insurmountable of the many challenges we face is the goal of comprehensiveness. I believe there are professionally responsible and systematic ways to develop a program that have more in common with the methodologies of the “do something” digital preservation crowd and MPLP than they do with those promoted by most records management resources. However, I feel somewhat alone and professionally unsupported in this pursuit.

So what say you? Do you also find comprehensiveness to be a daunting goal? Is it possible to both be a responsible records professional and to not directly focus on comprehensiveness as a goal? What does that look like? Does the guidance I’m looking for already exist? If not, would you be interested in it if it did exist?


3 thoughts on “Letting Go of Comprehensiveness

  1. carolinecurtin

    Christine – Great assessment of one of the many challenges we face as RM professionals. In my mind, I liken MPLP to the “big bucket” approach in records management. While both methods perhaps shy away from meticulousness I think they both in fact aim for comprehensiveness. Can we say that the “do something” approach IS a step toward comprehensiveness?

    NARA’s relatively new Capstone approach reagarding email leans toward the “do something” approach. More info here: http://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/bulletins/2013/2013-02.html

  2. Excellent points, Caroline.You’re correct MPLP and “big bucket” do aim for comprehensiveness at the cost of meticulousness. Maybe what I’m seeing as the attractiveness of the “do something” approach is that it puts the emphasis on something that is relatively achievable, rather than the “do everything” guidance I’ve encountered for RM. Clearly, I’m still working through these ideas and figuring out how to articulate my experience. Thanks for helping with that process!

  3. Dan Golodner

    Your not alone Christie, I to have been dealing for years, trying to wrap my head around the big picture records management system for the organization that supports my from a distance, they are in DC, I am in Detroit. For a long time, I knew I could not reach all departments, but starting with a few and showing the power of the archive word spread and now a majority of departments are on board . There are still holes but better then nothing.

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