Records Management in the News …. in 1826

Five weeks into my tenure as university archivist at George Washington University, I am working hard to learn its history. In the course of my study, I came across an incident that I thought was interesting from both a historical and a records management perspective: the 1826 scandal over recordkeeping that precipitated the institution’s first major financial crisis, and nearly caused its early demise.

The only known portrait of Luther Rice, 1830

Luther Rice is generally remembered today as a founder of the college that became GW, as well as a tireless fundraiser for both the college and the international missionary work of the Baptist church. Beginning in 1820, the year before the congressional charter for the college was passed, Rice served as the fledgling institution’s agent and treasurer.

For the next five years, Rice tirelessly traveled throughout the country soliciting subscriptions (conditional promises of donations) and collecting on earlier subscriptions for the support of both the college and Baptist missionary work. As treasurer for the college, he was also responsible for the outlay of funds and the maintenance of financial records. While universally praised for his abilities as agent, or fundraiser, his weaknesses as treasurer nearly derailed both the college and his legacy.

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Work Halting on Records Management Functions Thesaurus

Work is being officially suspended on the Records Management Roundtable’s functions and activities thesaurus, whose goal was to provide a vocabulary for use by records managers and archivists when classifying and describing records.

Members of the Roundtable’s leadership started work on the thesaurus in 2008, and work has been sporadic since then. However, the project has repeatedly failed to generate enough community support to sustain the effort. The past seven years have shown that creating and maintaining a thesaurus requires more organized effort than the roundtable has been able to sustain.

Records managers and archivists who need or want a controlled vocabulary for functions already have several to choose from. Getty Research’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus, for example, contains a functions hierarchy that “includes descriptors for activities relating to the manipulation of data, the collecting of objects, human communication, economics, business, law, and government, as well as other professional activities.” As another example, archivists and records managers working in higher education might find the Thesaurus for use in College and University Archives useful when describing their records.

It is not clear who would be the likely users of a functions thesaurus created and managed by the roundtable, nor have any specific use cases been identified in which such a thesaurus would be preferable to any of the thesauruses and vocabularies that are already developed and in use.

Therefore, the functions thesaurus project is being officially suspended until such time as (a) compelling use cases can be identified and (b) a critical core group of RMRT members who are invested in the thesaurus’ success can commit significant time to its completion and maintenance.

Service Accounts for Email Retention

Email. By this point, everyone knows that email can be a record and that it should be classified, scheduled, and ultimately retained or destroyed like any other record. However, despite everybody knowing this, almost nobody has come up with a rigorous yet realistic way of doing it that works in the real world with real people.

In my current environment, we’re slowly moving from a culture in which no email was systematically retained (other than for legal holds) to one in which email’s potential administrative and historical value is recognized, and in which some systematic retention is starting. To accomplish that, we’re using a strategy similar to NARA’s capstone approach, in which the accounts of key individuals are, by definition, held to contain historically valuable material worthy of permanent retention. To supplement that record, though, I’ve also started pursuing another technique with select offices and groups: the creative use of service email accounts.

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Two Case Studies of Web Archiving for Records Management

This week, I’m building off of two Schedule posts from last fall: Meg on websites as records and Matthew on social media content as records, by sharing two quick case studies in web archiving from my current work.

For the past year, I’ve been involved in a project to increase historic knowledge and current documentation of student life at my institution. This spring, that project has focused on establishing relationships with student groups, analyzing their functions, activities and records, then scheduling immediate and future transfers to the archives. In other words, records management.

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Our OTHER Records Management Skills

It seems that every time un- and under-employment among archivists and librarians comes up as a topic for public discussion, at least one person chimes in with the usual trope about all the OTHER things one can do with the skills and qualifications of a librarian or archivist. Records management is often high on that list. So it struck me as somewhat humorous when I recently found myself, as a records manager, listing off my skills and the ways that I am of service to my institution OTHER than creating and managing records retention schedules.

As a records manager in a highly decentralized organization, I have to use persuasion rather than authority to convince individual units to participate in records management activities, a position I’m sure many of the roundtable’s members find familiar. Despite having it as a goal, I often find that scheduling records – that core RM activity – is one of the least attractive, or least urgent, services I can offer the units I serve.

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Letting Go of Comprehensiveness

When I interviewed for my current position of Records Management Archivist about 16 months ago, I was asked to present my vision for a records management program in a “modern university.” Although I stand by that vision and believe we are making good progress toward most of the ideals I enumerated in that presentation, there is one that leaps out to me today as particularly naïve:

“Records management services are integrated into and actively support the operations of all records-producing offices, departments and groups.”

Through this characteristic, I was attempting to encompass both the ideal of comprehensiveness and the value of records management to the daily activities of the campus. It is the former of these, comprehensiveness, which now feels the least realistic of all my stated goals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have nearly abandoned it in favor of a strategically limited approach that, while it makes sense for my context, I have struggled to find support or guidance for in the records management literature. Continue reading “Letting Go of Comprehensiveness”