Archives/RM ethics, co-opting, and digital fireplaces

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?


17 thoughts on “Archives/RM ethics, co-opting, and digital fireplaces

  1. Gary Link

    I disagree with your statement:

    “…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.”

    1. A records manager determines the retention of a class, or series, of records based on their four values:
    administrative/operational, fiscal, legal, and historical. Then determines how long that value lasts for the organization. This, and not identifying harmful records, is the basis of appraising a record for its retention period in a retention schedule.

    2. The protection of this system is in making retention and destruction of records part of the organization’s normal business procedure, not in identifying “potentially damaging records.”

    1. Brad H.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I recognize that the sentence you quote is a vast oversimplification of what it is a records manager does (and I have in fact used those same 4 categories of record value in my training on campus), but I think it’s also indicative of my own ignorance of the strictly RM side of the profession. As I both a) am coming to records work from archives training, and b) am working as a records manager out of a public university’s archives, I don’t always have a sense of how strong the emphasis is elsewhere on the historic value of records. With recent eliminations or consolidations of archives programs at places like Target, one gets the sense that such value is not always a priority, at least as high-level admin goes– but I’m happy to be proven wrong.

      To be clear, I’m not suggesting that records managers have picked through individual records to identify risk (which would in any case preclude time to get anything else done given the sheer volume of records), but I do wonder how pressure, from above or otherwise, affects the way that records schedules are written. To take the Arthur Andersen example, those schedules were explicitly written to destroy documentation that could have been damaging to the company. While this is obviously an extreme case (AA notoriously rushed schedules into practice specifically to respond to the Enron case), it seems not impossible that similar retention policies could be written and not noticed specifically BECAUSE they are followed as routine business practice. Even something as simple as “delete all email after 90 days” seems like it has the potential to eliminate a huge amount of otherwise-historical correspondence, intentionally or not.

      The trouble with my question, of course, is that presumably anyone who has received external pressure to modify a record schedule can’t talk about it in a public forum 🙂 But responses such as yours are useful as well, in that they suggest the archives/RM divide is not as wide as it is often perceived to be.

      1. Peterk

        “To take the Arthur Andersen example, those schedules were explicitly written to destroy documentation that could have been damaging to the company.” An incorrect assumption. The schedules were in place well before the destruction took place. An email was sent to the Houston office by an in-house attorney to the Andersen partner responsible for the Houston office. In that email the attorney wrote “Mike – It might be useful to consider reminding the engagement team of our documentation and retention policy.” The attorney included a link to that policy.
        ‘ (AA notoriously rushed schedules into practice specifically to respond to the Enron case),” having followed that case closely and posting numerous RAIN postings about the case I do not remember anything that said that AA “rushed the schedules into practice”. The schedules already existed. According to congressional testimony “Andersen’s own records retention administrator issues quarterly reminders about which records should be kept and which destroyed.” (Chicago Sun-Times January 15, 2002). The problem was that AA did not consistently apply the schedules in the ordinary, everyday course of business.
        Andersen had issued in Oct 1999 Statement No. 780 which was an internal policy statement that addressed the procedures to be followed with respect to “notification of threatened or actual litigation,”
        Similarly they had issued Policy Statement No. 760 “Practice Administration: Client engagement Information, — Organization, Retention and Destruction” in February 2000. the collapse of Enron took place in late 2001.
        for fun reading check out the deposition of the Houston AA records supervisor

        Since that time organizational awareness has been raised as to when to stop destruction for litigation or audits or investigations. Spoliation is a term will known by those in the private sector and the courts have during the past ten years sanctioned spoliators. Another case to look at involves a company called Rambus which instituted a “Purge day” although litigation was looming. This google search will provide plenty of info about Rambus
        “The trouble with my question, of course, is that presumably anyone who has received external pressure to modify a record schedule can’t talk about it in a public forum” in over 30 years of RM work I’ve developed several retention schedules and each one required extensive research and negotiations to reach a mutually acceptable retention period. Modifications to schedules come about as a result of regulation/legislative requirements or business needs, not nefarious purposes.
        “Even something as simple as “delete all email after 90 days” seems like it has the potential to eliminate a huge amount of otherwise-historical correspondence, intentionally or not.”
        considering the huge volume of emails generated and received on a daily basis by organizations you will see a “huge amount of…historical correspondence” destroyed, but who will do the assessment needed to identify such correspondence for preservation, and how will you extract those emails for preservation?

      2. Brad H.

        Fair enough re: AA (details which I think I knew but didn’t express well… the point being that the retention schedules were only followed when it suited the company, which got them into trouble). As noted, I think that RM is an OVERALL positive force for information openness (well, one would hope so, anyway, given my job title), and I realize that the awareness in the profession of the need for litigation holds and the consequences for spoliation has developed significantly since 2002. But, as noted, I think the issue is less “records manager is pressured to rewrite schedule for nefarious purposes” and more “records manager is leaned upon to write enough flexibility into schedules to provide leeway for broad destruction if needed.” (I largely agree with you that users are going to be doing most of the destruction themselves, hence the need to get to them with training early and often.)

        What, in your experience, constitutes a retention period that is “mutually acceptable”? Obviously, one has to take strict legal and fiscal requirements into account, but in my experience administrative and historical values are a lot squishier. Granted, I do work at a university, where the overall impulse seems to be to keep everything ‘just in case’, but I can easily see that impulse leaning the other way, and a lot of key documentation being destroyed because it no longer has ‘administrative use.’

        “who will do the assessment needed to identify such [e-mail] correspondence for preservation, and how will you extract those emails for preservation?”

        I assure you that this keeps archivists up at night just as much as it does records managers and lawyers– I have lots of email accounts sitting on my server, with little idea of how to provide access to them while preserving the privacy of the donors– but that’s no reason to take a nihilist approach towards it. The below-referenced case in Ontario is the practical reason to work on figuring it out, but the pure research value of email is high enough as well to try to figure out a better way to deal with it. I like NARA’s Capstone approach, even though it only limits the scope of the problem rather than solves it; obviously computer-assisted review is necessarily going to have to play a much larger role going forward as well. But a static retention period is basically punting.

  2. Gary, thank you for your response, which I also saw on Recmgmt-L. You are correct in citing in point 1 on-paper ideal world RM operations. How well that works varies IRL based on many elements, or so RMs in executive branch agencies with whom I’ve had off line conversations have told me. If you have not done so, take a look at my “Digital Fireplace” post, to which Brad links above. I think it is important to prepare people entering the archival and RM professions for a wide array of potential experiences, good and bad, both. Especially as some have both archival and RM duties. The two professions align well in some areas, less well in others, or so Listserv postings suggest.

    Moreover, some public and private sector organizations have systems in place to mitigate the risk to subordinate employees, not just mitigate risk in records. Others do not. Some organizational cultures view records per se as high risk, some as low. Vulnerability to litigation over company actions is only one element in risk perception.

    Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero observed in a hearing in 2011 that any records related situation that involves human interaction makes him uneasy. I believe that the agency he heads, NARA, is wise to look at RM solutions that reduce risks of human beings making mistakes, whatever the cause. Sometimes is as simple as being too busy. There are other reasons, as well.

  3. Arthur Andersen was in a singular situation because it was a CPA firm. Its mission depended on a reputation for probity. Catch 22 or a no win situation — destroy recs in actions others may question. Or leave them to be discovered and have operational actions questions. It might still be in existence as a firm had key officials thought strategically and tactically in such matters and mitigated, if not eliminated, concerns about what internal records revealed. I recommend Barbara Toffler’s Final Accounting: Ambition, Greed and the Fall of Arthur Andersen for one insider’s account. Perspectives vary, of course.

    As to records scheduling, how it is handled depends on the organization. Situational awareness, knowing the organization’s culture, enhances the scheduling process. In Fedland, budgetary constraints have led most executive agencies and departments to rely on contractors rather than on civil service employees as was common until the 1990s. I know several contractors who work in executive departments or agencies.

    When executive branch federal agencies rely on contractors to work through scheduling issues with the National Archives, they are turning the function over to people who situationally are more subordinated than civil service employees. An agency employee, in some situations, can turn to General Counsel or even agency the Inspector General to work through ethical questions related tor ecords Or to seek other means internally of resolving integrity issues.

    Contractors with whom I’ve spoken indicate that they are much more limited in their actions. They are dependent on whoever is administering the contract. Things can work well. If there are issues, and they don’t work well, they may be stuck.

    An anecdote, FWIW. I know one former NARA employee who retired and worked RM as a contractor. That person approached very senior staff at an agency whom the civil service RM had little contact with. It was a bold move that paid off in improving records awareness at the Cabinet level department. but from what I’ve been told, such a move by a contractor was never repeated. Successor contractors have been more low key and less proactive. So, according to stories I’ve heard of executive branch contractors’ experiences, it depends.

  4. Many thanks for raising these questions, Brad. I hope they trigger some useful conversations. However, I understand, of course, that people who have faced problems most likely cannot discuss them in public. The federal environment is, in many ways, different from that in any other. As to NARA, there are some insights in to its mission here: A mission we regard as noble intrinsically is challenging.

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