Follow Up to Body-Worn Camera Records Hangout

On February 8, the Records Management Section was pleased to host a Hangout with Snowden Becker of the UCLA Department of Information Studies to discuss law enforcement body-worn camera footage and recordings.

If you missed the Hangout, you can watch the recorded version here. In addition, Snowden prepared some additional readings on her website.

We had record turnout for this Hangout, and time for some excellent questions from viewers about exemptions from public records laws, transfer of recordings from devices to repositories, the role of bystander video, how vendors handle records, and differences between public and law enforcement perspectives on video recordings.

This topic is being addressed elsewhere within SAA; recently the Issues and Advocacy Section addressed the topic on their blog, and the Committee on Public Policy is currently  circulating a draft to selected SAA sections in order to prepare an issue brief on body camera footage.

 

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How to Audit Nothing

A local news story recently caught my attention, because it contains many lessons for records professionals, auditors, and local government. Last month, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported,

“A tiny river town in Adams County has no mayor, no clerk and, apparently, no financial records. The state auditor’s office has ruled the Village of Rome “unauditable” and is warning that legal action may follow.

In a press release Monday, the Ohio Auditor of State reported that during its audit of the village, which is scheduled to take place every two years, no financial records were provided.”

The entire story is worth reading. In addition to the lack of records, it seems that the Village of Rome lacks clear elected leadership, and that no one ran for mayor, clerk, or council during the last election.

This got me thinking – is this a recurring issue in very small jurisdictions? The Village of Rome only had 94 citizens at the time of the 2010 Census. While I don’t know much about the demographics of Rome, it does seem like it would be difficult to find and recruit enough elected representatives from a body of fewer than 100. From a quick web search, this seems like it’s an issue all over the United States. Jacksonburg, Ohio (population: 64) has gone at least 10 years without anyone filing for the top offices (in which case a write-in wins, or someone must be appointed). In Minnesota, 2/3 of local offices either have 0 or 1 candidate running, and over 30 cities have no one running for mayor. Sometimes there is little documented guidance about what to do if you want to retire and no one else files to run for your spot.

A common theme through many of these articles is that running for elected office in small jurisdictions is a thankless job: little compensation, or recognition, but still a significant amount of work. And since many rural residents now commute long distances to larger urban areas, there is a small pool of people potentially willing to run for elected office.

So what are the records management implications? Obviously even the smallest community is not an island unto itself, and typically is part of a larger governance relationship. It may be required to submit records to the county or state on a regular basis. And as we see from the Village of Rome, officials with records responsibilities are the key ingredient to not only creating and maintaining records, but performing their own act of archival transparency and authenticity by existing in the first place to turn over records to auditors. No people means no records.

Perhaps the best summary of this mess comes from the press release from the Ohio Auditor of State:

“It’s tough to start an audit when you can’t even find the people in charge,” Auditor Yost said, “but it’s even harder when they don’t provide any records.”

Faculty research and public records laws

This post is the fourth in a series on research data management presented by the Records Management Roundtable. 

Working in higher education records management, I am fascinated by how different states treat records commonly associated with universities. One of the most unpredictable areas is state law regarding the public record status of public university faculty research.

What’s key to remember here is that state law is all over the place when it comes to public records exemptions that apply to state-supported universities. In all 50 states, state open records laws apply in some fashion to state-supported institutions — but the question of how looks radically different from state to state. For example, in Ohio all public university employees create records that could conceivably be subject to a public records request. On the other hand, this isn’t the case for public university employees in Delaware. And then there is Pennsylvania, which has some of the most unusual state university public records laws when you consider the concept of “state-related” institutions, to put it mildly.

In addition, the question of who formulates records retention schedules (which are very closely related to, but not the same thing as responding to public records requests — indeed, in many institutions those duties are located in separate areas) within public universities varies widely. For example, in Ohio, the state public records law authorizes each university’s Board of Trustees to establish university-based records management policies (in practice, the Trustees then delegate these records management responsibilities to other areas of the university, such as University Archives or General Counsel), and most Ohio public universities take retention scheduling advice from a state association known as IUC. However, the universities still look to the broader state law regarding what can and cannot be released as a public record under state law. In Kentucky, records retention schedules are established by the state-based Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives. In my opinion, questions of decentralized or centralized retention scheduling authority has vast impacts on educating the larger university community on records issues, be they retention scheduling, or educating records creators about potential public records issues.

In recent years, there have been a number of public university faculty whose research records have been requested by the public. Recent high-profile cases illustrate some of the issues associated with faculty research and public records laws.** Climate change researcher Michael Mann, currently at Penn State University (and formerly of the University of Virginia) has been involved in a number of civil actions and public records requests from the state of Virginia and from a think tank. A timeline can be found here  (readers note that the timeline comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has filed an amicus brief in the past in support of Mann — I was unable to find a similar comprehensive timeline from a mainstream news organization). In the original 2010 civil investigation demand, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli requested “all data and materials presented by former professor Michael Mann when he applied for five research grants from the university.” In 2012, the Virginia Supreme Court sided with UVA and Mann. In 2011, the American Tradition Institute (now known as the Energy and Environment Legal Institute) filed a public records request “seeking all of the documents that “Dr. Michael Mann produced and/or received while working for the University . . . and otherwise while using its facilities and resources . . . .”. Ultimately the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against the Institute in 2014, and ordered them to pay $250 in damages to Mann and UVA.

In a more recent case, Kansas University student group Students for a Sustainable Future filed a public records request for contracts, correspondence, and CVs concerning economist Art Hall’s hiring, funding sources, and correspondence on specific topics. A district court temporarily stopped the University from releasing the records after Hall filed a lawsuit against the university. The case was ultimately settled out of court, with only a selected group of records released as part of the settlement.

A common theme in the discussion of public records laws is if and how there is a chilling effect on what public employees are willing to state in the written record. This concern carries over to the question of the public records status of faculty research, since some faculty may avoid engaging in controversial research if they believe their research will be targeted through public records requests. Furthermore, release of research records can mean a researcher’s work may be “scooped” before she can publish it. This is a huge risk for tenure-track faculty, who depend on a successful publication of original and novel research in order to obtain tenure. This is likely why in many states that have carved out public records exemptions on faculty research records, they often exempt research records for work that has not yet been published (for example, Virginia, Michigan, and Ohio).

In addition to research records, some requesters have asked for records not specifically tied to faculty research, but other faculty activities, particularly in areas of teaching, activism, and shared governance. This gets into the knotty question of academic freedom, and if/how it should cover records that aren’t exclusively related solely to research activities. For example, in 2011, the Wisconsin Republican Party filed a public records request for the emails of University of Wisconsin geographer William Cronon, who had been publicly critical of Governor Scott Walker’s actions on public employee unions.

In a sign that professors are beginning to grapple with this issue in new ways, professor Laura Wright of Western Carolina University released all of her emails from a recent records request on her blog. Links to the redacted emails are here and here.

I think there is a very clear justification for public records exemptions pertaining to unpublished faculty research. As noted above, unpublished research that is subject to public record requests would very quickly compromise universities’ research profile, and create a chilling effect on controversial research (which is often important and groundbreaking research). State courts have recently sided with this argument, finding that the chilling effects outweigh disclosure of research records (see pages 9-12 of this brief). Regarding other non-research records, there remains two problems:

  1. What exactly is a “research record”…? My inbox is full of emails with colleagues where we discuss things like “Hm, what’d you think of $XYZ in the news? Maybe we should eventually collaborate on this thing and turn it into an SAA conference proposal or a research article. If we did, we should go about it $ABC…” Does that count as a research-related record? It’s certainly opening the door, but we haven’t formalized an actual project.
  2. Some public university faculty members understandably want to invoke academic freedom to either intentionally or unintentionally set themselves apart from other public employees subject to records requests. Academic freedom is critical to being able to research, teach, and do academic service, and public records requests for information related to any of these activities has the potential to compromise academic freedom. Obviously, records managers are as familiar as anyone else with politically-motivated harassment via records requests. The problem with invoking this claim is that faculty members aren’t the only public employees subject to political harassment and intimidation for carrying out their work as they see fit. Many state agency employees have been politically targeted for doing work that is within the sound confines of their professional expertise — look no further than Florida Department of Environmental Protection climate scientists. To me, the better argument isn’t to create a wholly exempt class of public employees, but to ensure that public employees engaged in potentially controversial, but legal and ethical work, in the public interest have full civil service and collective bargaining protections in order to perform their jobs effectively.

**In the interest of full-disclosure, not only am I a records manager, but I also hold faculty status at my public university, am a member of the American Association of University Professors via our university’s AAUP collective bargaining unit, and conduct research related to the intersection of archives and climate change.

This post updated on March 3, 2017 to more accurately describe the type of request Professor Wright received.

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.

Storify of joint SNAP and RMRT Twitter chat

The Records Management Roundtable was delighted to join forces with the Student and New Archives Professionals Roundtable last week for a Twitter chat on records management. For those of you who missed it, or just want to relive the great time, SNAP Roundtable senior social media coordinator Ariadne Rehbein created this Storify of the conversation.

We thank SNAP for the great opportunity to share and learn from each other.

Don’t be caught in an archival haze, fearlessly appraise!

This year’s annual meeting kindled my interest in diving deep into appraisal. Coming up on my 2 year anniversary of being in the records management trenches, I have a new appreciation for appraisal when I am developing retention schedules, which tend to take a blunt instrument to questions of appraisal when it comes to disposition.

 

I went a bit wild at the SAA meeting bookstore this year, and got some good recommendations on Twitter. I’ll be reading many of these over the next year and sharing some of my records management thoughts here on The Schedule. Here is my tentative reading list — what am I missing? Any appraisal topics you’d love to hear a records management perspective on?

Continue reading “Don’t be caught in an archival haze, fearlessly appraise!”

Rethinking Records Management Training

I teach several records management workshops a year for our university. These workshops are intended to educate the university community on its record keeping obligations, Ohio’s public records law, and how to manage email and electronic records. I really enjoy teaching workshops, however I often receive feedback along the lines of, “I find your workshops so helpful and am inspired to go back to my office and make changes, but once I get back my busy schedule takes over and 6 months later I find my workshop notes underneath a pile of papers.”

A lot of this is simply reality at a large university. In addition, decentralization makes it unlikely that automated solutions are likely to be implemented across the entire system. That said, I’m thinking of ways I can make my workshops more immediately useful for those who take time out of their busy days to attend.

I received some fantastic feedback following a workshop last year — an attendee mentioned how useful it would have been to walk out with a concrete game plan of what they could do back in their office that week. This semester I’m going to try this idea out, by holding a workshop with just a few participants. We’ll go over what their challenges are, and come up with some actual plans they can implement within a reasonable amount of time.

In addition, I’m now thinking of how to make the workshops more hands-on and interactive. In a previous presentation, I did a group pop quiz titled “Is it a record?” by showing an example of handwritten notes, an email, a Word doc, etc (spoiler alert: the person who reads what’s on the document usually gets the answer right). It’s a small sample size, but I’ve heard the pop quiz was enjoyable to at least one person. Having people articulate out loud to each other why something is a record rather than getting caught up in the format issue is helpful. I have seen examples of “re-organize the file structure” exercises from data management and personal digital archiving workshops that help drive home the importance of file organization structures and naming. I see many issues of very messy shared drives on campus, so this could be a very useful workshop activity.

Have you ever re-thought your workshop or training activities? What hands-on activities did you incorporate?