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:
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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:

Continue reading “A Record Center Is Not An Archives: Dispatches from a ARM sector change”

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Towards a Social Justice in ARM bibliography

First, let’s get this out of the way: I bet Matt Yglesias feels pretty stupid right now. Hahahaha ohhhh I’m going to be depressed. (Yes, I have a political bias. I’ll try to tamp it down for this post.)

Anyway! With White House pages on key issues disappearing (though not permanently! Thanks, NARA), information lockdowns being passed down to entire agencies (at least temporarily), and the possibility of science from the EPA being subject to political review before release, one’s mind tends to drift to questions of an archivist/records manager’s ethical responsibility in an institutional setting. (Didn’t you already write this post, Brad? Yes, I did, on multiple occasions, but this one’s different, I promise.) Yes, you have a responsibility towards your institution/government/whatever, but what is your responsibility towards society? Are archivists, particularly in records management roles, obliged to serve as whistleblowers? Do we save records of historical import on our own volition, despite orders (or, at best, strongly-worded suggestions) from the Powers That Be to show them the business end of a shredder? What do we make of reports that a top advisor to the president is actively avoiding creating a paper trail?

Well. I Have Opinions about all of these things. Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for you), an official group blog for a component group of a professional organization is not the place for them. But those sublimated opinions have to go somewhere… in this case, I thought, “why not take a look at what the professional literature has to say about these issues?” I put out a Twitter call for recommendations, did some poking around on some of my library’s databases, and the result is a brand new category on the RM bibliography, which I am tentatively calling Institutional Records and Human Rights. More on this after the jump. Continue reading “Towards a Social Justice in ARM bibliography”

NARA survey on Records Schedule Website

[Posted by request of Anne Mason, Office of the Chief Records Officer, NARA. Easy access to, and interpretation of, records schedules is extremely important for compliance with same, so even if you don’t work with NARA proper it’s possibly worth your while to look at the RCS website and provide feedback re: what’s going well and what could be improved.

Real post from me coming, sometime after my presentation on Personal Digital Archives at Wisconsin Libraries Association tomorrow. Cross my heart.–BH]

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) asks for your assistance by completing a short survey. NARA provides access to Federal agency records control schedules, also referred to as records disposition schedules, on our website (http://archives.gov/records-mgmt/rcs/). These schedules assist Federal agencies by providing authorities for disposal and permanent retention of government records. We would like to hear your thoughts and opinions about the usefulness of this site. This will allow NARA to make informed decisions about improvements to the site so we can better serve you in the future. This survey should take less than 10 minutes to complete. Be assured that all answers you provide will be kept confidential. Thank you for taking part in this important survey. Please click on the link below to begin.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HD5YTFJ

 

Transparency and its Discontents

The denizens of Twitter like to dump on Matt Yglesias, blogger and executive editor at Vox.com, but said dumping is not always warranted. Tendencies to oversimplify and be contrarian for the sake of it aside, he does write not a few pieces that do provide some good insight into the political environment. His latest piece, “Against Transparency”, ain’t one of those, however:

Treating email as public by default rather than private like phone calls does not serve the public interest. Rather than public servants communicating with the best tool available for communication purposes, they’re communicating with an arbitrary legal distinction in mind.

[…]

Government secrecy can be, and in some ways is, out of control. But a private conversation to facilitate a frank exchange of ideas is not the same as a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia. We need to let public officials talk to each other — and to their professional contacts outside the government — in ways that are both honest and technologically modern.

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God bless the internet.

As Eira Tansey, who graciously looked this post over for me (Thanks Eira!), points out, this is just the latest in a subtle, but real, trend among contrarian-type thinkpiece authors, in which  the era of open government is lamented as impeding government from functioning properly. (See this recent article in The Atlantic for another example of this genre; mourning the demise of party machines is a nice touch.) This one, however, hits a bit more home, for obvious reasons. For more explication of why this article raises my records management hackles, follow me past the jump.

Continue reading “Transparency and its Discontents”

Session 204: Why You’re Already A Records Manager…

[Editor’s Note: Geof Huth and I will be recapping this talk as a Google Hangout for the RMRT
sometime in the near future! In the meantime, please enjoy this extremely thorough recap by Melissa Torres. Thanks Melissa!–Brad]

[Editor’s Note 2: I wanted the title of this session to be “You May Already Be A Records Manager”, complete with oversized check and Geof as Ed McMahon. That got vetoed for some reason…–Brad]

Why You’re Already a Records Manager and Should be Happy About That

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One of Brad’s favorite GIFs of all time, featured prominently in the presentation

Speakers: Geof Huth and Brad Houston

2pm, August 4, Salon E, Session 204

This session focused on government, academic, and corporate sector records management. Continue reading “Session 204: Why You’re Already A Records Manager…”

Records Managers: Not Making This Stuff Up, Part the Billionth

So! The Office of the Inspector General released its report on Hillary Clinton’s emails today. Perhaps you’d heard about it.

The report itself is here (Warning: major TL;DR alert). It reads like a litany of “everything that can go wrong with a digital records management program”–poor communication, lack of executive buy-in, technology not up to the job of meeting requirements– and my plan is to break down the whole thing at some point to take a closer look at what happened from a purely records management standpoint. But in light of Eira’s excellent post on institutional silences and the digital dark ages, I wanted to quickly hit one paragraph that jumped out at me:

Two staff in S/ES-IRM reported to OIG that, in late 2010, they each discussed their concerns about Secretary Clinton’s use of a personal email account in separate meetings with the then-Director of S/ES-IRM. In one meeting, one staff member raised concerns that information sent and received on Secretary Clinton’s account could contain Federal records that needed to be preserved in order to satisfy Federal recordkeeping requirements. According to the staff member, the Director stated that the Secretary’s personal system had been reviewed and approved by Department legal staff and that the matter was not to be discussed any further. As previously noted, OIG found no evidence that staff in the Office of the Legal Adviser reviewed or approved Secretary Clinton’s personal system. According to the other S/ES-IRM staff member who raised concerns about the server, the Director stated that the mission of S/ES-IRM is to support the Secretary and instructed the staff never to speak of the Secretary’s personal email system again.

Holy moly. I am simultaneously astonished and not at all surprised that this conversation happened. Without attempting to divine the source of this supposed gag order or the motivation behind it, there is at minimum a failure to communicate happening here, and in all likelihood a deeply ingrained culture of subordination. Two employees, rightly concerned that use of a personal email account posed a recordkeeping and security risk, were specifically told that they were there “to support the Secretary”, and as a result questioning her use of personal email was anathema. That is really an incredible directive, if substantiated. I would argue that pointing out vulnerabilities in information security and governance IS supporting the Secretary (by, say, helping her avoid a prolonged investigation into her email management practices during an election year), but that’s just me.

And yet… what do you even DO in this case as a records manager? In a lot of institutions records managers are so far down the totem pole that there’s not a lot of pushing back to be done if a C-level staffer doesn’t want to follow records management directives to the letter. It’s easier to stand up to your negligent or reluctant official if you’re based out of the Legal department (and even easier if you are yourself a lawyer), but for a records manager based out of an administrative department, or the library? How do you make the case for good records practices when you have been explicitly told not to pursue it? How far do you stick your neck out for the sake of the historical record and transparency, vs. the short-term interests of your institution? Particularly if, as in so many cases, the records law which you are following has no real penalty for non-compliance other than the hypothetical/tangential “you might get sued”?

I don’t have an answer to any of the above questions. I’ve struggled with the right level of aggressiveness in pursuing records of high-level officials at my own institution, and have almost certainly lost some key electronic records being kept on a personal hard drive or in an email account because of it. (Elsewhere in the report records staff reports “not feeling comfortable” directing the Secretary to use the internal records system and looking for an automatic system to capture the records; I feel this anxiety acutely.) In this *particular* case Secretary Clinton released (most of) the emails after the fact, so the damage to transparency and the historical record is perhaps not as great as it could have been. In other cases? Who knows what’s being lost because the records manager is not as much in control as he/she would like to be.

These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night, because I am an enormous nerd and am kept awake by records management questions. (Well, that and a one-year-old baby.)

A (probably doomed) attempt to desensationalize Public Records reporting

So, I suspect that Journalists on a political beat pay more attention to potential changes in public records law than is warranted by public interest in the topic. This is not altogether surprising– Freedom of Information-like acts have a direct impact on journalists’ ability to do their jobs properly by collecting key information about the actions of state government and bureaucracy. Because of this impact on their livelihoods, however, stories about potential restrictions to public records access tend to be… um… a bit overexcited. We saw this on this very blog a few years ago with the Franklin County Brouhaha, and now we’re seeing it again closer to my own home with some stories about a change to retention schedules in Wisconsin.

On the one hand, great! Happy to see Public Records Law and retention scheduling in the news. On the other hand, both of these stories get a lot wrong about what is really going on in this situation. If only there were someone on a group blog who was informed about how Records Retention and Disposition worked in the State of Wisconsin…Hmm… Well, if there is such information I bet it’s past the jump.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am technically an employee of the State of Wisconsin, and while the schedule mentioned in these stories does not apply to UW, I do work with the Public Records Board to approve our local schedules. Because of that position I am also not going to comment on the political implications of these retention changes. (Much.)

Continue reading “A (probably doomed) attempt to desensationalize Public Records reporting”