A Record Center is Not an Archives: Some thoughts from an interview

So, some context: one of my employees (I won’t name her here unless she sees this and asks me to) is currently pursuing her MLIS from SJSU. A recent assignment for one of her classes was to interview a practicing Archivist and/or Records Manager about the “qualified practices” of the profession and write up a paper/presentation/something else summarizing and analyzing it. Did she happen to know anyone like that in her immediate circle? As it happens, she did!

I think a lot of professionals on the archives/RM border have done these interviews, because we are still (somehow) an anomaly to MLS/MIS graduate students. Which, fair enough! I didn’t really even realize records management was a thing until I was already in the program. So some of the questions she asked me were pretty bog-standard… but then some of them were very insightful, particularly asking me to talk about the intersections and differences between the Archives and Records Management professions. Because of the vagaries of our schedules, she asked me to write the answers to the questions rather than conducting an interview per se… So, having written those, I said to myself, “I bet I could repurpose these somehow.” And so, following her permission now that she’s submitted these for credit, I have! Below the jump, a selection of her questions and my answers (lightly edited for the purposes of this blog). In addition to the discussion of intersections, there’s some hints at what I am trying to do to improve the archival component of the City’s records program (to be elaborated on further in a later blog post).

Am I blowing smoke about how the professions fit together? Do you disagree with my assessment of how the profession is changing? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments!

What made you want to switch from archives to records management?

Well to be perfectly honest I still like both 🙂 I think records management appeals to me as sort of more foundational, as in general if you don’t have a good records management program you don’t have a truly functional or organized archives. At the same time, I see archives as the next logical stop on the records continuum, and one which I think a lot of records managers ignore at their peril. The attractiveness of archives is greatly underestimated for the mission of the institution as a whole and for the desires of individual records creators to practice good records management in such a way as to preserve their history for posterity. So really I think the records management section of the Society of American Archivists has been good for me, because it lets me advocate for records management issues in an archives context—which is good, because the Archives profession has sort of looked at RM as an afterthought, and it needs to take it more seriously.

[…]

It’s definitely an adjustment in terms of my job priorities, but I don’t think it’s a *bad* adjustment—I have to think on my feet a bit more with records coming in and out, and otherwise reshape the way I envision the flow of records into and out of our collections. It’s sort of a 90 degree turn conceptually from the Archives process, but it’s interesting to see these records differently and to focus much more on both the ephemeral and the long-term non-permanent.

Do you see a big overlap of job duties?

Definitely. End of the day both Archives and Records Management work are about appraisal, acquisition, processing, access, and disposition; the difference is the emphasis placed on each. There’s (understandably) more focus on processing records of enduring value and making them accessible to the researching public; we do some processing in the records center but it is nowhere near as detailed as it is in the archives world. On the other side, the logistics of disposition are a lot more complex here than they were at [FPOW]—we have to make decisions about retention times, deal with space issues, prepare records for timely destruction, and keep an audit trail of boxes coming in and going out to a much greater extent than we did at [FPOW], where boxes coming in pretty much stayed in, with the exception of weeds during processing.

Both Archives and Records Management have a heavy appraisal focus, or at least they should. This is probably my favorite part of the job—identifying records series and making determinations about their value and the role they play in helping the information ecosystem of the institution come together. Because I ran the records program at [FPOW] this is particularly analogous—in both places I put together retention schedules for submitting to the Wisconsin PRB, e.g.—but I think the program here has more emphasis on direct contact and schedule building, at least for now. I was in a place with the [FPOW] program where I was mostly doing a lot of education work (campus workshops, webinars, etc.) though I am aiming to get back on the education horse for City employees.

How would you describe the nature of your work?

Easiest way to describe it is “info wrangling and access”—figuring out how to get the information organized, making sure it is retained for the appropriate amount of time, ensuring that it is disposed of properly, and making sure those people who need to use the records are able to. I think the CRC [City Records Center] does a reasonably good job of the first 3, and I’m working towards more of the latter—access to records by the records creators is fine (although I’ve heard from more than one source that the records center has been seen as a black hole at times) but access to records by the public has been more problematic outside of the building plans and tax rolls. I want to make people aware of the services the records center can provide, of the benefits of good records management, and of all of the current and historical information about the city available to researchers and members of the public. So I guess that’s a fifth component of the nature of the work, i.e. education (employees, researchers, public) on the records life cycle and its impact, and how to use what we have once it arrives here.

How is it different from the archives vs. records center?

Sort of addressed this in some of the above, but I really see a few major differences:

  • Emphasis on the permanent vs. emphasis on the ephemeral. It’s not that the records center is not concerned with the permanent—we classify a lot of records as permanent or archival e.g.—but because so much more of what is in our collection is temporary, the day-to-day focus is primarily on that stuff. Because the volume of those records are so much larger, there’s a much bigger impetus to make sure things are destroyed in time to make space available, protect confidentiality, etc.
  • Service to the Institution vs. Service to the public. Again, both [FPOW] and City Records do both! But the emphasis is, again, different—the Archives were very outward-facing and the understanding we worked under was that we were ultimately looking to serve the researching public foremost. I did a lot of reference work for departments but I did a lot more work in the reading room, assisting with genealogy requests, answering emails from researchers, etc. Here our relationship to the City is paramount—we provide inactive storage for records that still might see use, and so we need to have enough control over those records to retrieve them at any time—and although we do have a public service component it is sort of a sideline to our main activities. Even if my archival vision is fully realized we’ll never be as public-focused as a university archives, or even the MPL City Archives—but I’m hoping the balance will move at least a little.
  • Level of collections control. This is the one that I’m still trying to wrap my head around a bit. In the archives we did have a locator for all of our collections, but due to the archives mindset it was at the collection or accession level even there—we would never have dreamed of tracking boxes at the item level, or if we did we only did so intellectually, as part of a finding aid. Contrast to here, where RMS [our records management system] tracks the life cycle of each individual box, and it is a little overwhelming at first—but at the same time, the finding aids we put together for each collection were at times MORE descriptive than what we have, because they included background info on the records and a fuller description of the scope of the collection than we can store in RMS. There’s a bit of analogous handling at the series level, but it’s not *quite* the same—an archival series may or may not have anything to do with a records series, although as I am playing around with various archival description schema I am trying to make them work. 

    What are some of the challenges you deal with?

    Biggest issue is lack of cooperation from records creators, who—charitably—have trouble fitting records management into their world view. The perception I run across is that they don’t have time to manage records, which of course you and I know is nonsense, but try telling them that… The other big issue I keep running into is this conception of records management as paper-first or paper-only, as if half of these departments don’t send us their paper records to literally turn into digital records and keep that way. It seems like a lot of records creators see their digital files as their personal fiefdom and therefore believe that they don’t need to be scheduled, or that existing schedules only apply to paper records. I spent 10 years at [FPOW] trying to fight that perception, so I suppose it’s good to have something to do…

    In any event, this challenge speaks to the need for additional educational initiatives, which I’m hoping to start up once the Grand Opening [Of the municipal research center] occurs.

Do you like appraisal or accessioning work better?

Good question! Hmm… I guess if you held a gun to my head I’d say appraisal, because again it’s more foundational—going to see what is in a given series or collection, determining what to keep, and building a retention policy off of it that will apply to future records of that type. Ultimately the archival question is one of appraisal (i.e. what do we keep and why do we keep it) and I think a strong appraisal program is more likely to reduce junk coming in and improve the quality of the archival record. That said, there’s something to be said about accessioning, because the act of actually taking possession of records is satisfying—once you’ve accessioned them into your collection, you have a level of control over them that no appraisal can replicate (because see above about the main challenge in this job).

Do you think the appraisal process needs to be reinvented because of persistent backlogs of material or because of the abundance of electronic records?

Kind of? From a technical standpoint, yes, we need to do better to effectively appraise the technical feasibility of preserving born-digital records in various formats, and I think there is something to be said for the Greene and Meissner “More Product Less Process” model to reduce backlogs. But at a series level I don’t think it rises to the level of a reinvention—possibly a reorientation of how we assess value (esp. in terms of text mining, metadata harvesting, etc.), but ultimately the best way to reduce backlogs is to take in less stuff in the first place, which ideally a good appraisal program (and RM program!) is allowing you to do. I do think reappraisal and deaccessioning are generally underused tools by most archivists (even 30 years after the Leonard Rapport “No Grandfather Clause” article) and can do great things to reduce backlogs and create space.

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