A Record Center Is Not An Archives: Dispatches from a ARM sector change

Welcome back from SAA! Or, if like me, you were #saaleftbehind, welcome back from the weekend, I guess. I’ve been pretty quiet on The Schedule for a while; part of that has been my natural tendency to fall behind on blog posts, but the other part has been this:

That’s right! In case you missed it on social media or in the MAC Newsletter, I have left my position of 10 years as University Records Archivist at UWM and moved across town to become the Records Officer and Document Services Manager for the City of Milwaukee. In some ways it’s kind of an odd position, born out of the Document Services Section’s previous life as Milwaukee Printing and Records. I manage the City’s Records Management program, yes, but also the City Records Center, the City’s imaging service for long-term inactive records (previously the microfilming service), and, for some reason, the City Mailroom (which has of course had the most major issues crop up, since it’s the part of this job I know the least about). Despite this sort of odd present, the position has an exciting future—City Records is going to be merging with the Legislative Reference Bureau library and the Historic Preservation Office to create a City Research Center, the nature of which is still being determined. Coming in now thus gives me a great opportunity to help shape not just my position, but the way that active, inactive, and archival information is managed across the whole city going forward.

But anyway! Local government! I’ve spent most of my career doing Archives and Records Management in an academic setting, and have a pretty good chunk of experience from undergrad and grad school working in a Federal government records setting, but municipal government is a new beast for me (and for this blog, I think!). Don’t get me wrong—I am enjoying the challenge of working in a new context, but it IS a challenge. Moving to a new institution and setting has given me a lot to chew over and learn about. For the sake of not writing a 5000-word post, three examples:

A record center is not an archives

As opposed to working in the UWM Archives, where we had about 8000 c.f. of material that is staying where it is (give or take some reappraisal), the Milwaukee City Records Center maintains 25000 c.f. of semi-active, inactive, and archival records (sort of… more on that in a bit). The comparatively huge scope of what we’re managing here took some getting used to; so too did the idea that a lot of these records are going to be destroyed at the end of a relatively short time period. Thinking about it, I actually like that last bit—we as a society generally hold on to too many records anyway, and this way I can make sure that records slated for destruction are actually destroyed once they’ve expired.

The weirdest thing for me, though, is the attenuated public access mission. Of course the City is a public entity and subject to Public Records Law, and there is *some* interaction with the public in the form of assistance with historical tax information and building plans. But in terms of a formal archival access component, it’s not there. Most, though not all, of what we retain permanently in microfilm or on our imaging system is administrative stuff, primarily for internal use—property registrations, budget documentation for departments, food establishment inspection plans, that sort of thing. We do have some archival records of general interest, but they aren’t extremely accessible (more on that in the next section) and there’s not a lot of public knowledge of their existence. What’s more, other than myself and one of my supervisees, my staff doesn’t have archival training, so any work we do on this will be an uphill struggle.

(Side note: the City of Milwaukee’s Archives situation is… complicated. Officially, the Milwaukee Public Library maintains the official archives of the City at their central building downtown. Unofficially, archival records of the city are all over the place—besides the records of Mayor Henry Maier, donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in a fit of pique against MPL in the late 80s and currently stored at UWM, there are official reports and publications being maintained by the Legislative Reference Bureau library, minutes and related materials kept on a server run by the City Clerk’s office, and the aforementioned archival materials being held at the City Records Center. We work with someone from MPL a couple of times a month to screen records for transfer to the Archives, but they don’t have a dedicated archivist position, so their work on the City Archives proceeds in fits and starts, and largely doesn’t account for the records being held elsewhere. Rationalizing this process and helping to bring at least discovery of city archival materials together is one of my big goals with the reorganization.)

Records Management Systems are super-useful, until they’re not

Because we have records coming in and out of the Records Center all the time, a records management system is critical to operations, and so I was pleased to discover when I started at the City that a mature system had already been in place for quite some time. It’s the kind of system that would have been extremely useful for records management at UWM—a relational database that links schedules, boxes, file requests, and locations together to allow for cascading changes and relationship analysis. (Compare to UWM’s system as of May 2017, where the collections management tool was a flat Access database, which is completely disconnected from the finding aids site. Not as unusual as we’d like in the Archives world, but obviously sub-optimal, too.) I never knew how great an interconnected system was until I was able to use one.

Unfortunately, the system is “mature” in the other sense as well—it is a DOS-based application, running off a DBase backend (…yep) and last updated in 1996 (…double yep). The department actually has a number of computers still running Windows XP, because the application is so obsolete that it won’t run on Windows 7. Early-90s applications being what they are, there are structural limitations in the database that are unfortunately still reflected in our practices outside of it. To take one example, departments are associated with retention schedules by 3-digit codes rather than the name, requiring an external lookup table to see what department a box or schedule belongs to. To take another example, general schedules have multiple listings in the database, often one for each department, because department is associated with schedule rather than box, so it would otherwise be impossible to determine which department a particular box belongs to. (Don’t even ask about how the system handles electronic records. It hurts me.)

Happily, the program is finally, mercifully, at the actual end of its life—we are developing a homebrew Java-based application with a MySQL backend to replace the legacy system, and it looks like we’re on the home stretch for migrating everything over. There are still problems, of course. Because the new database is based on the old one, it still doesn’t handle electronic records well (Although the records management piece of our imaging software carries some of that load), and description of materials is almost entirely at the box level. This works OK for boxes full of case files, which allows us to put “Housing Files A-F” in the box description. It doesn’t work well at all for boxes of subject files or other heterogenous series, where knowing what individual folders are in each box is important. It also doesn’t really pull records associated by series or accession together into units, which is going to be an impediment to getting access to archival materials off the ground.

To ask our developer to redo the database architecture at this point would be counterproductive; I think my whole staff just wants to get away from the DOS program at this point (and can you blame them?). But it probably does mean that as the City Research Center develops, we’re going to be looking for changes, or even a new system altogether that handles the needs of the full records lifecycle. I may get a chance to make a case for ArchivesSpace or similar after all…

I have to almost completely revamp my statutory/regulatory knowledge

This one I saw coming. After all, knowing best practices for FERPA compliance from a records and security perspective is not terribly useful in an environment with no students. (I guess someone could ask me about Milwaukee Public School records? Maybe?) Likewise, the functions and operations of city government are radically different from those of a university (not many universities I know issue bartender licenses—although maybe some do!), so I have to familiarize myself with regulatory universes of which I never dreamed as an academic archivist. Still, ultimately I can get a lot of the information about functionality differences from subject matter experts, a lot of functions of an organization are the same regardless of sector (fiscal and accounting records, e.g.), and at the end of the day I’m still working with the same Wisconsin public records law. Right?

Well, yes… except that I am now learning that the requirements under the Wisconsin Public Records Law are very different for local government vs. state agencies (Of which the UW system was technically one!). This different status is making me study up on the idiosyncrasies of the parts of the law applicable to municipalities, and I am starting to make very good friends with folks in the City Attorney’s office for questions of records management jurisprudence. I’m also running into weird interactions with the City’s authority over records of city entities which are nonetheless incorporated at a quasi-state agency level, such as the Housing Authority. Lots of fun questions about whose records they are anyway and whether I, as records officer for the City proper, am able to tell them what they should do for their records.

The really “fun” part here, which I didn’t discover until my second week or so on the job, is that unlike UWM, the City of Milwaukee does not have a single centralized public records custodian. This means that when a department gets a public records request, someone from that department, who may or may not be an attorney, fills the request and applies the balancing test themselves. In a lot of cases the person in the department fulfilling these requests has been doing so for years, is aware of the intricacies of the law, and has a good handle on what should and shouldn’t be released. On the other hand, in many other cases, that expertise probably *doesn’t* exist—which means as City Records Officer, I’m going to be turned to for guidance. This puts a lot of pressure on me to bone up on the applicability of the various parts of the statute, provide more robust guidance for file management, etc. To be honest, working more actively with these requests is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while, but to be thrown in the deep end like this is a bit disorienting.

More local government please

So, as mentioned, lots of challenges in this new position. But good ones and solvable ones, I think (hope?). I’ve kind of barely scratched the surface of what I’m learning about local government records and about records management as a whole, so look for more posts on this blog about my experiences in my new RIM sector. One thing that I have noticed that seems consistent across sectors: nobody really knows what to do with email management. The more things change, the more they stay the same….


3 thoughts on “A Record Center Is Not An Archives: Dispatches from a ARM sector change

  1. Angela

    Really interesting read, Brad! Thank you for sharing your experiences with a sector change. I’ve been working in state government RM for the past 8 years, and have often wondered — particularly since a state government hiring freeze went into effect earlier this year — if I’ve painted myself into a tiny little corner. Would my skills translate to local government, higher ed, or (gasp) private sector? This gives me hope that they probably would.

    And, thanks for this blog in general. As an archivist-turned-records-manager-who-still-really-misses-archives, it’s really great to know that there’s a place for RM in SAA.

  2. Jill

    I’m actually your counterpart at Milwaukee Public Schools (sort of…long story). Our RIM program is just emerging but our process for responding to public records requests is quite solid. I’m going to put a pin in this post because, if you’re willing, I would love to pick your brain down the road.

    I used to work for the City Clerks’ office, which houses the LRB. Lots of great folks there! And yes, the Office of the City Attorney provides exceptional guidance in terms of Wis. Public Records law.

    1. Brad H.

      Yes, of course! Feel free to give me a call or send me an email. (You, and I guess everyone else reading this post, have my contact info 🙂

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