Notes from the Underground Records Center

Having the role of Records Officer for my organization has been an interesting juxtaposition to my archives training. It’s changed the way I think about how information becomes a record, which in turn may become part of the historical archive.

In archives, preservation is king, and while the fine art of reappraisal comes up in discussion from time to time, once a collection is processed, we don’t typically expect for the contents of that collection to change. In contrast, the primary duty of my Records Officer role is to approve destruction of non-permanent records that have met retention. So on while on one hand I am jumping through hoops and patching together solutions to ensure that digital archives will be stable and viable for long into the foreseeable future, on the other I am working to ensure that records are destroyed “in the normal course of business” to ensure that our retention schedules are followed in a way that complies with the spirit of public records laws.

If anything, these duties have led me to be more aware of the value of objects, whether physical or digital. I recently read Bruce Sterling’s book Shaping Things, which goes into the more theoretical end of “what is an object” and “how have material objects changed with human culture”? One particularly relevant point that Sterling makes is that so often an object comes into our lives only briefly during its entire existence; think about the timeline of a Styrofoam cup, used for perhaps 30 minutes, but destined to sit in a landfill far longer than I can honestly expect our paper archives to last.

In our work, we encounter objects of temporary value with some regularity. We use our historical and institutional knowledge to make the best guesses we can at the objects that will retain or increase in relevance or cultural value over the years, discarding what is mundane or abundant or otherwise seemingly irrelevant. Anyone that has turned down a potential donor’s newspaper from the Kennedy assassination or the first moon landing has experienced this relevance change first hand.

Essentially what I’m saying is that archives and non-permanent records are all on the same continuum. Though this is far from a new idea, for me, my records officer duties have led to a shift in my thinking away from archives as the end of the records life cycle to another, longer point on the timeline.

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