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:
BusinessCard

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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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.”

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.

argumentbadfeelbad
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”

Latest Edition of SAA’s The Records Manager newsletter, Spring 2016 issue is published

Dear RMRT Members:

Here are the Highlights from the Spring 2016 issue of The Records Manager, newsletter of the SAA Records Management Roundtable:

In this edition of SAA’s The Records Manager, you will find the following postings:

  • RMRT Hangouts: ePADD for Email Archives;
  • Back to the Basics in Researching- Lorette Weldon;
  • Institutional Silences and the Digital Dark Age- Eira Tansey;
  • Records Managers: Not Making This Stuff Up, Part the Billionth- Brad Houston

Enjoy the Spring 2016 issue of The Records Manager.

You can retrieve the current issue of the newsletter at

https://www.scribd.com/doc/314715094/Spring-2016-SAA-s-The-Records-Manager

Please remember that the RMRT website can be found at http://www2.archivists.org/groups/records-management-roundtable

The newsletter archives can be found at http://www2.archivists.org/groups/records-management-roundtable/the-records-manager-newslette

Best,
Lorette Weldon

Newsletter Editor, The Records Manager (http://www2.archivists.org/groups/records-management-roundtable/the-records-manager-newsletter)

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.)

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.

Back to the Basics in Researching

As a reference librarian, I worked with many library patrons who would ask where they could find books on specific subjects. I would show them how to find possible sources that could answer their questions.  Sometimes they would come back with a narrowed subject.  Then, we would look at other sources that could answer their more focused questions.  Other library patrons would take the sources presented to them and take the information from those sources as the only answers that they could find.  The library patrons who kept asking questions were developing their skills on how to be more effective in reading comprehension.  Unfortunately, the patrons that left with what they had, without further focusing on their subjects, would come back with questions for other subjects and keep asking me for the sources with the answers that they needed.  They did not learn from the first reference interview how to conduct basic research.  I wondered how I could help the novice researcher to be more effective in researching their questions.  I found 6 steps that could help.

Researching

Continue reading “Back to the Basics in Researching”