The topic of this post has been percolating around my brain for a while, but it’s really been brought to a head by a few recent things. First was an article in the UK’s Independent newspaper about discovery of a systematic program of document destruction as Britain ended its rule in its former colonies in the 50s and 60s. Second, there was an article from Mark Greene in the latest issue of American Archivist discussing the responsibility (or lack thereof) of the archival community to pursue social justice in the practice of the profession. (Link is subscription-only at the moment– sorry if you can’t get to it!) I have to admit, though, that the real impetus to writing this post was a twitter conversation with Maarja Krusten that I had earlier this week. (So now you know the horrible secret to getting me to write on a topic on this blog: twitter-guilt me into it!) Embedded tweets below the jump, so as not to eat your bandwidth:
So, yeah. I’m not going to directly address either of the linked articles (though both are worth a read), but Maarja is right that this is a thing that really isn’t discussed as much as it could be in records management circles. It doesn’t seem likely that either King Leopold or the colonial governments of Great Britain were really thinking about retention schedules when they made the decision to destroy their incriminating documents as they left their respective offices behind. On the other hand, does the existence of Records Management much mitigate this problem? Witness the post below this for one example of how well Records Management works for retaining documentation of problematic policy decisions.
…Well, that’s not really fair, either to the Archives of Ontario or to the the records management profession as a whole. Honestly, my guess is that records management as a whole has drastically improved our collective access to the historical record, at least in terms of governments and other public institutions. In theory, at least, having retention rules and guidelines, particularly ones that are backed by force of law, will lead to much *more* historical documentation being retained, which in turn is going to lead to more accountability in general. There are any number of instances in which open records laws have provided a treasure trove of information for people looking to keep their government to account, and even given attempts by legislatures or governors to resist those laws, or overzealous classification/lax declassification of materials, they’ve worked pretty well on the whole, at least so far as I can see.
Of course, “on the whole” is nowhere close to “perfectly”, and particularly as we get ever closer to the ‘paperless office’ asymptote, there are two points where this kind of openness breaks down. I’ll let Maarja talk about the first in her own words:
Things are very different now than in the days of paper based record keeping when executives did their work largely unconcerned or even unaware of records management. Federal agency and departmental records managers worked with Points of Contact (usually administrative assistants) to work out file plans for the cabinets that housed paper records until someone boxed up the ones with historical value. Officials rarely concerned themselves with what happened outside their executive suites. The records would sit “somewhere” for 20, 30, in rare instances as much as 50 years, then end up accessioned into NARA. NARA then eventually opened, at least in part, the records for research by the public.
In the computer age, with most work records born digital and input shared via email (if interactions occur in written form), the people with the most vested interest in their legacies are being asked to sit by the Electronic Fireplace. It is a very different environment than back in the day, when officials were protected or surrounded by buffers of time and distance and staff members.
Nobody reading this blog needs me to tell them that this is a tricky problem to get around. It really comes down to training, training, training, and getting to records creators (and IT professionals!) early enough so that they’re aware of their records responsibilities and have something to do with them. Since you’re essentially needing to reach potentially *every employee in your institution*, this is obviously a Big Task. The obvious solution, of course, is to automate as much of the process as you possibly can (e.g. have an email archiving solution that automatically identifies record emails, moves them to a records space, and retains them as needed), but these programs are of course very expensive. To boot, they may not even work, depending on the extent to which employees rely on external cloud services to help them do their jobs.
The second breakdown point is more insidious, and that is the point where the interest of the records manager differs from the interest of the archivist. A lot of records management positions reside in or adjacent to their organization’s legal departments, particularly in private companies, because a lot of what the records manager does is mitigate risk. In this formulation of the profession, the records manager is looking to identify classes of documents that might cause harm to the organization, and to be aware of any laws that might pertain to retention of those documents. The idea, then, is to prescribe retention periods that have employees holding on to potentially damaging records for as small a time period as possible, then destroying them as soon as practical.
Now, this is not to say that the “risk management” portion of a records manager’s job is unethical ipso facto– risk minimization is a key portion of all of the records management training I do on my campus, and a stick is as good– or better– than a carrot in getting departments and employees to comply with records management policies or statutes. At the same time, it is *very* easy to get overzealous in terms of what kinds of documents constitute risk, or to be subject to pressure exerted from above to write (or rewrite) records schedules that specifically allow potentially incriminating or embarrassing documents to be destroyed as part of a schedule (see everyone’s favorite example of Records Management chicanery, Arthur Andersen). This actually relates to a different twitter conversation I had some months ago– I argued, as a records manager, that personal notes or diaries of high officials would not be considered records, and I would feel very uncomfortable in that capacity recommending their retention. (This was a very popular position to take amongst the archivists with whom I was arguing, as you can imagine.)
Of course, I am NOT just a records manager, nor are most people who are members of this roundtable, which is (finally!) the point of this post. I do wonder to what extent people who are serving in the dual role of archivist and records manager are more cognizant of their historical responsibility and/or resistant to pressure to allow destruction of potentially harmful, but historically significant, records. In the example above, Records Manager-me would probably recommend that the personal diaries of a campus president or C-level official not be scheduled, but Archivist-me would say that such documents are of interest to the historical record, and should thus be preserved, perhaps separately as a manuscript collection. These, I think, are questions that archivists doing records management have to think about more than whether or not to destroy records that do not somehow advance social justice. (OK, I lied a little when I said I wasn’t going to address either of the articles.)
So, I will end this post by turning the question over to the readership. Well, questions. I’m curious to hear about people’s experience with these kinds of issues. Have readers had to deal with pressure, implicit or otherwise, to destroy potentially embarrassing records by schedule? What was the reaction to this pressure? Does status as an archivist in addition to records manager confer soft or hard authority to maintain records that might otherwise be lost? Does your view on this differ depending on whether you came to your position via an archives or records management career path?