Institutional Silences and the Digital Dark Age

Over on the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable blog, Bert Lyons recently wrote a post titled “There Will Be No Digital Dark Age”. I loved this piece, since it touches on two of my favorite hobby horses: the erasure of archival labor from public discourse, and re-asserting the value of professional archival labor for a problem that routinely vexes the general public (in this case, degradation of digital cultural heritage).

Bert recalls a recent NPR article covering one of the common fears of our age, that of an impending digital dark age. He left a comment on the article noting that the story left out a critical component — the work that archivists and other information professionals have been engaged in for some time so that we don’t lose all of our digital heritage, culture, records, and information to the great intertubez quicksands. He states, “We are not and have not been absent from the digital preservation questions. We are, however, hidden in the public narrative” and goes on to stress that appraisal and selection will be tantamount, particularly around questions of archival silences.

I agree with Bert’s assessment, but I also want to bring my perspective to this as a public university records manager (the other half of my job is digital archivist), that I think many archivists whose work doesn’t include an institutional records mandate often miss. I get the sense from recent archivist conferences and meetings that if we just raise our consciousness enough, if we advocate just hard enough, if we can be just squeaky enough, it’s within our power as archivists to prevent many of the issues around things like digital black holes or archival silences. Being a records manager has taught me that nothing could be farther from the truth; because those with the most power within organizations are rarely the same individuals tasked with carrying out records mandates, there will always be archival silences despite archivists’ and records managers’ best efforts. I may write in “Transfer to archives” under the disposition area of a records retention schedule, but that act of instruction is not an assurance that the records are actually preserved.

Currently, I think a lot of online and offline discussion around archival silences is dominated by archivists who work or have been professionally socialized within a manuscripts/external donor/topical collecting framework. The perspectives of people who are required by their jobs to dedicate the majority of their time to preservation of institutional records of the parent organization’s official business (be it corporate, government, university, etc) are often missing. This is unfortunate, because I believe there are as many archival silences among institutionally-mandated records as there are among archives that emphasize collecting content from external parties.

In a 2004 article on archival silences, Rodney Carter’s article approaches the paradox of powerful entities’ determination of what goes in the archive, while actively resisting full documentation of their activities. However, the majority of Carter’s article (and additional recent literature on archival silences) focused on the lacunae of marginalized groups from mainstream archives. Much of the literature on archival silences explain these silences through the biases of archivists, claims of objectivity, or chasing the trends of historians. These concerns have become a rich part of the archival literature, and have led to the rise of community archives, training activists in archival methods, post-custodial models, and other revitalized forms of practice to preserve non-institutional archives.

If archivists care about accountability, I would argue that within the context and mandates of institutional archives, silences associated with the powerful have just as many ramifications. In countless circumstances, the powerful actively resist documentation or inclusion in the archive. In a 2013 post from Records Management Roundtable member Brad Houston, he builds on a conversation with Maarja Krusten reflecting on how digital technologies have enabled records creators to easily circumvent cooperation with records policies. In a highly litigious environment, or in areas where the powerful are often more concerned with their public appearance than in fully-documenting their work, there are myriad ways in which people routinely circumvent records requirements. Just as appraisal is never a neutral activity, neither is retention scheduling (which obviously constitutes its own form of appraisal). For a very current view of the political weight around records retention scheduling, I would refer readers to the inconsistency among jurisdictions on the retention around non-evidentiary body-worn camera video .

A lack of records associated with the powerful within the context of institutionally-mandated archives denies people an important avenue to examine the evidential actions of elected officials, CEOs, and other leaders, and hold them accountable. In his work on the nature of police records in post-Katrina New Orleans, and the records of prisons (which includes an analysis of retention schedules, something I wish we saw more in our literature), Jarrett Drake notes that state records can and often are manipulated or destroyed in order to protect the powerful. Because of this, human rights archival literature has long argued that state records alone cannot be the entire corpus of evidence for bringing about justice. But the question remains — what can archivists, records managers, and others who work within an institutionally-mandated records program (the ones who write retention schedules, arrange for records transfers, and educate records creators on policies and procedures) realistically do to ensure that institutional records are authentic, and that what comes to the archives aren’t just the public relations leftovers that make the institution look good?

From my perspective, silences of the powerful highlight the fact that there are two other forms of archival silences that can be explained by factors outside of archivists’ direct control:

1. Lack of, or inconsistent cooperation with records disposition on the part of records creators. This should not necessarily be construed as active malfeasance — but for many people, disposition of their records (via destruction or transfer to archives) is a perennial after-thought. In a recent report from Archives New Zealand, it noted that in virtually every office it audited, disposal and transfer of records was “inconsistent.” Although countless archivists have called for embedding ourselves at the beginning of the record life cycle, it would appear we are nowhere close to successfully doing this on a large scale. We often forget that archivists are not the sole arbiters of what resides in an institutional archive: preservation of the records of the organization is highly dependent on individual employees’ cooperation with institutional records policies. Resistance or non-cooperation leads to myriad silences; and these gaps become problematic in ensuring institutional accountability.

2. The 30-year long cycle of poverty that afflicts archives. Obviously very well-funded archives with significant staffing and resources can, and are, still rife with bias. However, many (most) archivists, whether in institutional archives or collecting archives, are constrained in their ability to process and preserve as many records as they would like to due to a persistent lack of archival labor and resources. If every archive could double (quadruple) its staff, this would help fix many silences by being proactive about identifying record gaps, doing the hard work of maintaining relationships with originating offices or donors, establishing post-custodial relationships where appropriate, etc. Not all records are lost due to active destruction, many are often lost due to benign neglect. A 2014 report showed that 33,000 of boxes intended to be transferred to British Columbia Archives were warehoused instead due to insufficient resources . If archivists with institutional record mandates are overworked and under-resourced, is anyone surprised that all they have time for is dealing with the records that do manage to get transferred? (And even then, many institutional archives have a hard time keeping up with what does manage to come through the door, for example according to a recent OIG report, 28% of NARA’s textual holdings have not yet been processed).

And this is where I want to push back against Bertram’s post a little bit and bring it back to the digital dark age — in an environment with institutional records mandates where archivists have little power to enforce compliance with records policies and even less agency over the budgets they receive, the risk of a digital black hole is very, very real. According to last year’s Council of State Archivists report, the number of state archives FTE employees dedicated to electronic records actually decreased from 2006 to 2014, and there are now fewer state archives staff relative to overall state employees. State archives have reported that there is a consistent gap between the authority to carry out state records policies, and the resources needed to actually perform or deliver duties and services. Archivists with institutional records mandates rarely have the authority or resources to go out and get all the electronic records on their own that are required to be transferred to the archives. For us, the digital dark age remains a major risk without organizational buy-in and adequate funding, and the full support of our professional organizations for the challenges we face.

Post by Eira Tansey

Thanks to my fellow RMRT steering committee members Brad Houston, Lorette Weldon, and Christie Peterson for their comments and suggestions on this post.


11 thoughts on “Institutional Silences and the Digital Dark Age

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful post! So much to unpack here. That the traditional hold time for government records was 30 years served as some measure of buffer in the days of largely paper based records managment. “Confidential” administrative assistants or other trusted support staff in an executive’s immediate office typed, then handled mailing, distribution, and filing of internal and external correspondence and other records.

    While in some circumstances there was danger of improper purging of material designated for “transfer to archives,” in many cases, the decades-long storage of paper records somewhere took them off the radar screen of senior level creators and recipients. To the extent questionable purges occurred prior to transfer to archival custody, time protected some records from over-sanitization.

    Purges often took place after issues had cooled and some of the principals had left their positions in the upper ranks. Put another way, the passage of time in and of itself sometimes affected risk assessment and purge criteria favorably in terms of institutional memory.

    That this environment could not and cannot be replicated in the electronic age is one reason (not th only one, of course) why there are so many news stories now about non-compliance and alienation of records.

    Officials in universities, corporations, government read headlines and news stories about litigation, investigations, or what they may perceive to be “witch hunts.” Then turn to their email inboxes to read messages and briefing papers emailed to them. In cases where an entity has sought to replicate traditional methods, they have in front of them items that they are asked to declare record or non-record. And to move or designate to moving to an electronic records management system.

    To an electronic record keeping system to which people in IT and other support functions–designated employees or contractors–have access. People unknown to them, unlike the carefully chosen confidential assistant who once sat next door and was the one who locked up and kept the key to their paper files. (One federal IG has mentioned lack of trust regarding electronic access. Warranted or not, it can be a factor.)

    There is a greater danger of immediate purging, deliberately or inadvertently, of electronic messages and attachments cy creators and recipients than in the past. These purge decisions by those with the most vested interest in records content occur when perceived risk of retention is (or feels–this can be highly emotional) highest. That is to say, when issues are “hot” and officials’ actions liable to inquiry or investigation or to cherry picking and demagoguery.

    The losses to history can be incalculable. Because not all the individuals deleting records of their actions are seeking to burnish legacies or hide wrong doing although some are or may be. Some such university, corporate or government officials actually have handled their jobs well but just are acting out of fear. And fear is a great motivator when someone is sitting next to the digital fireplace. More so than in the past, it can affect the records lifecycle, from appraisal and scheduling to hold time retention to transfer to archives.

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  3. Very interesting post! I was also struck by Bert’s piece and it’s informative to hear other responses.

    The records perspective is important. I’ll just amplify a couple points you made. Retention schedules are indeed important archival appraisal mechanisms. A major intractable issue – and one that has been oft noted – is the lack of implementation, or incentives for compliance with retention policies. (This will only continue until RM and IT are harmonized.)

    There’s an important article by Ciaran Trace about how “what’s recorded is never what really happened ” (paraphrased; see – it’s important for archives/records/info people to remember that there are always discrepancies in written records (paper or electronic) and the complexity of experience. And there’s all sorts of interests at play – not just individuals but the complex social entity of the organization (i.e., structuration).

  4. Good comment about complex social entities of organizations. And I agree that “harmonization” between IT and RM is the best for which we knowledge accountable officers can hope. I’ve turned in recent years from explaining the reasons for the “chilling effect” on present-day record keeping to urging historians and other students of government to learn to interpret silences. I advise them to get to know people who can help them understand how organizations and their cultures work. And in working with recent records, to allocate more time than in the past for oral history interviews to fill in knowledge gaps.

    One critical tipping point for preserving knowledge (a different issue than retaining records created by business units) occurred with the attempts over the last 10-15 years to replicate paper based RM methods. For some employers, this involved rolling out declare and click Electronic Records Management Systems. These efforts did not take into account the psychological impact of the earlier use of third parties–executive assistants–rather than the creators and recipients of records to do filing.

    At their most benign, these failed ERMS initiatives did not take into account how busy officials are. Nor did they anticipate what might happen in certain organizational cultures and environments when those with the most vested interest in the content of materials (sent and received) were asked to declare which were record or non-record.

    Add to that the increasing drumbeat of “The Age of Discovery” and litigation and other external records requests and creators of records often saw few incentives to declare materials to be record. “According to the training I had received, I determined what I received was non-record….” the answer provided when queried as to why deletion occurred.

    Historians such as Eduard Mark (with whom I chatted about the “chilling effect” and knowledge gaps 15 years ago), John Earl Haynes, and Michael Beschloss understood what was happening on the largely-neglected people side of record keeping at the start of the 21st century. Beschloss observed in 2002, ” Public figures no longer write the kind of thoughtful, discursive letters and revealing memos that we used to see. People in Washington are more public relations savvy than in earlier times and, thus, more adept at drafting memos and other records that conceal their motives and can fool the historian.”

    RM and IT can and should save some of those memos and records and apply retention schedules. Some may contain information, not knowledge. And of course, a workplace Knowledge Accountable Officer is my term, not a RM or IG term. The purpose of RM always has been to manage what individuals chose to write, memorialize. Whether what they wrote tells what happened, how and why, or not, and the extent to which the PR version sometimes replaces a much more complex reality, will fall to later users (internal to an organization or outside it) to puzzle out.

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  6. Mark Sprang

    I really liked your post, Eira. I am one of those reduced-in-number state government archivists. Case in point, my agency had 130 employees in 1998, and now has 33. I am the only full-time ER archivist on staff, plus we have one ER specialist in the RM Division. For years, RM had to tell agencies to hold on to their ER because we didn’t have the capability to preserve them. Now that we can and have held some training for agency records officers, things are improving somewhat. I try not to think of the sheer volume of ER that have been lost over the past two decades. I agree with Jesse above that government archives are tasked with developing retention schedules, but have little recourse to enforce their use. The best incentives we have are to play up the fiscal and liability benefits of transferring records to us.

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