From the Archives: The State of Records Management, c. 1961

A twitter conversation about the split between Archives and Records Management (a topic that is worthy of its own series, let alone its own post) recently piqued my curiosity about how the two professions got this way in the first place. I know that there was a recent article in American Archivist about the development of the Records Management profession, but my quick search on the SAA site hasn’t turned it up (Irony!). What it HAS turned up is this article from 1961 by Thornton W. Mitchell. (The article should be old enough that even if you don’t have an SAA membership you should be able to access this one). It’s a quick read and interesting for both archivists and records managers in the way it describes some of the same identity issues that we are still having with the profession. A few choice quotes:

The lack of professional motivation causes some to deny that records management is really a profession. There is widespread skepticism about us.

This is actually something I hear more often about the Archives profession nowadays… but I’m also not as plugged in to the RM professional discourse as I would like.

Most executives believe, if they are at all familiar with the phrase, that records management means throwing away old records and storing more recent ones until they are old
enough to be destroyed. […] Moreover, some records managers who are responsible for successful retention and storage programs may encourage this narrow
identification because they do not want to “rock the boat.”

Add some language about electronic records and ECM systems and this is a statement that could have been made yesterday.

Another basic weakness that we must overcome is the lack of standards in our profession. Anyone can call himself a records manager, and there is very little agreement on what the position entails. Certainly we represent all manner of backgrounds: some of us are historians, others have been trained in business administration, others have administrative backgrounds.

Discussion of this issue was actually the impetus for the aforementioned twitter conversation! I think it’s less the case that the RM profession lacks standards (if nothing else the Principles and the various certifications put paid to that idea) but it IS still the case that people come to RM from a multitude of backgrounds. In that sense, I think the identity issue is still there– an entry-level RM job (“records clerk” or “records analyst”) expects much less of its incumbent than the training one gets from an MLS program would suggest.

We have, as another weakness, a tendency to be diverted by fads. It is too costly to be called a fad, but some of our fellows see in the electronic computer the answer to any questions arising from the creation, processing, maintenance, and disposition of records. “Put it on tape!” they cry; “then we won’t have any problems.” Some of us who served our apprenticeship in government can remember when microfilming or reports control or a correspondex offered the solution to all of the problems stemming from too many records of poor quality.

You heard it here first, folks: the electronic computer only escapes being called a “fad” because it is “too costly”. (I’m sure that there’s more than one records manager out there who wishes that the computer *had been* a fad…)

The records management profession is singularly lacking in sacred cows that have stifled other programs and caused them to become inbred. New technological developments have not been resisted; records management has recognized, for example, that electronic data processing presents new problems that require new solutions.

I wonder how much of this is wishful thinking… though it is true that the profession as a whole has been quick to get out in front of new trends in business process that affect records management, such as BYOD and Cloud services. (Now, whether the vendors join us there is a different story altogether.)

One of the first requirements to establish professional identity is to decide on the scope of records management. We must define our profession in terms that can be accepted by all
its practitioners. We have two alternatives. The first of these is that we can accept our encirclement and agree that records management means only the retention and storage of inactive and obsolete records. We would, as the result, relinquish any claim to the other
areas that involve working in and controlling the life cycle of records. The second alternative is that we assert and defend our claim to the right to control the entire cycle from creation to final disposition. If we are to make this claim, we do not need to invent a new name by which to identify our profession, but it is obvious that we must be prepared to perform acceptable work in the additional areas that we embrace. It is not enough to make the claim and to extend the commonly accepted definition of records management; we must be prepared to perform and to deliver.

Well I certainly *hope* it’s the second one! Note that we have, in fact, invented new names for the activities of the profession, at least (“Information Governance,” anyone?), but I think records managers have been pretty good in general about making sure that our activities encompass the entirety of the records life cycle/continuum/Mobius strip/whatever.

As a part of the process of establishing its identity, records management must resolve any differences that have developed with any related professions that regard it with skepticism and distrust. These differences must be resolved on the basis of mutual understanding
of and agreement on respective spheres of influence and activities; they cannot be resolved by the unconditional surrender of one profession to the other. Archivists and records managers,
for example, must recognize that they have mutual interests in a common field. The interests of the records manager are somewhat broader than those of the archivist, but since we exert an influence upon the permanent documentation in which the archivist is interested
we must concern ourselves with that type of material when we develop and establish our various programs. Archivists, for their part, must accept the fact that records management will determine to a considerable extent the type of material to constitute the permanent documentation with which the archival profession is concerned and should work closely with records managers to protect that documentation.

Hmm, I wonder if anyone is putting on any professional development programs to further this goal in the near future. Maybe a webinar or something.

That’s enough out of me– go check it out for yourself for a fascinating snapshot of the profession in its adolescence. (And if you know the citation for the more recent history of RM article, please share it! It’s driving me crazy.)


2 thoughts on “From the Archives: The State of Records Management, c. 1961

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