Advocacy and Records Management

There is a school of thought that traditional records management is dead, a remnant of the past along with paper-based technologies. This is not entirely accurate. We know that records management continues to play, or has the potential to play, a vital role in the larger information governance framework.

Defining information governance is rather difficult. I particularly like Gartner’s official definition:

“Information governance is the specification of decision rights and an accountability framework to encourage desirable behavior in the valuation, creation, storage, use, archival and deletion of information. It includes the processes, roles, standards, and metrics that ensure the effective and efficient use of information in enabling an organization to achieve its goals.”

Information governance can be interpreted as a broad and inclusive framework or broad and exclusive. In Courtney Bailey’s survey of the membership to SAA’s Records Management Section, nearly 700 members belong to an academic institution or to a cultural/nonprofit organization. Approximately another 225 belonged to a governmental records management program. Just over 100 of our fellow section members identified themselves with a corporate organization.   

By and large, members of this section might not find ARMA’s Information Governance Implementation Model particularly inclusive. Within this figure, where do cultural heritage organizations such as libraries, museums, and archives reside? Perhaps with the vision-setting Steering Committee? This would presuppose that LAM environments are viewed as institutional information management authorities rather than as a cultural boon or as support services.

In Jackie Esposito’s Institutional Placement Survey – Records Management and Archival Services (published June 2017), nearly 40% of respondents reported that the placement of their institution’s records management program was in the archives; nearly 28% reported ‘Other‘, identifying units such as Library, Museum, IT, and the President’s Office. Of all the respondents, exactly half stated that while there is a Records Management Program in their organization, it “is more consultative in nature and not robust enough to manage 100% compliance”.

One can surmise that for many of us, while records management exists in our organizations, we often wield limited political power. How do we change this? Do we want to change this? Are we equipped with the appropriate labor and infrastructure to expand our reach? What exactly are we offering to the table at large? Can we deliver on our promises?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, we have a place on this hypothetical Steering Committee. The value we place on cultural memory, community partnerships, evidence, and historical record-building cannot be undervalued, nor should this value be underemphasized.

One area I believe we can cultivate is advocacy, represented on the above model as Service, Capabilities, Processes, and Authorities. Advocacy and outreach are complementary, but not synonymous. Advocacy is a political process in which an individual or group aims to influence policymaking. It is not enough to get our constituency to use the preferred archival boxes and folder list templates, to make them aware of our reading room availability. We need to know what we need, how to get it, and how to keep it.

Skills like negotiation, coalition building, risk assessment, change management, grand strategy – these are important qualities to cultivate, especially so for people who want to affect real change in the workplace. How do we grow and cultivate these skills? A traditional answer will include experience, but that surfaces even more questions – when contingent labor is de rigueur, how can archivists and records managers gain that political experience, especially when it is gained through interactions with the records creators themselves? Through committee work and policy engagement? Through previous work experiences?

In the course of the next year, it is my hope to explore these issues with you and to bring some voices to this conversation. Please stay tuned and as always, don’t hesitate to reach out to me with questions, comments, and suggestions.

 

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To Become Like Living People

The following is a RMS guest post by Maarja Krusten, a retired Federal government historian who worked on records, archives, and historical research assignments and served for 14 years as an archivist in NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries. 

Margaret M. H. Finch once said that working with permanently valuable Federal records made the people described in them “almost become living people.”  Who was Finch?  And what provides context for her own story?  Records!

After the death of her husband in 1918 during the influenza epidemic at the end of World War I, M. M. H Finch joined the Pension Bureau.  She became a branch chief and top expert in the pension records of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.  In 1940, the Pension Bureau transferred the records to the National Archives.

Finch transferred to the National Archives at the time the pension records were accessioned and worked there until her retirement in 1949.  In 2015, the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) shared Finch’s story on Social Media:

“She continued to help researchers locate pension files but also gave numerous talks about researching in the records. . . .In an interview conducted upon her retirement, she explained the files made the men who served ‘almost become living people, and their descriptions of battles in which they fought are so real you feel like you’ve been an actual participator.’”

Finch
Mrs. Margaret M. H. Finch worked for the National Archives from 1940 until 1949. Image Credit: National Archives and Records Administration Facebook Page.

The research I’ve done on the construction of office buildings in Washington, DC. enhances and provides context for Finch’s story.  The National Archives holds textual and photographic records from the Commission of Fine Arts (Record Group 66) and the Public Buildings Service (RG 121).  These include a wonderful photo taken in 1940 of the Pension Building where Finch once worked. I tweeted the photo in 2017—note my inclusion of the source information!

We can use such stories to show why records matter.  Records managers ensure the proper disposition of records, including the retention of those that have historical value.  But information professionals know that the people they serve in academic, corporate, government, and other offices are busy with day-to-day mission work.

Where do employees hear about what is happening with records created outside their employing organizations?  Sometimes, it’s in a negative context—a data hack, the leak of internal documents, controversies over who said what and when.   But there are positive examples out there, as well.  And not just in the history books some of us love to read.

I’ve been thinking about that in the context of working many Education and Public Programs Division events at the National Archives and Records Administration.  Some relate to temporary displays, others to long-term exhibits, such as “Remembering Vietnam,” which ran November 10, 2017 to February 28, 2019.

I met many Vietnam war veterans over the course of the last year as I helped staff programs related to the exhibit.  I found seeing veterans reconnect with their past experiences through the records shown in the exhibit and displayed during panel discussions deeply poignant.

Last February I talked to visitors to the National Archives Museum about the Emancipation Proclamation.  It’s a fragile document displayed only once a year, at most, and then only for three days.  I especially enjoyed the questions from students, one of whom pointed to a faded circle on the last page and asked if someone had set down a cup of coffee!

A great opportunity to talk about conservation—not just the iron-based ink, but why the seal and ribbons at the top of the last page deteriorated over time.  And why President Abraham Lincoln signed his full name., not just the A. Lincoln he used in routine documents.

Employees participate in records management training sessions in-person or online. But unless they work as historians, policy analysts, lawyers, or in other knowledge-dependent functions, they may not have time to think about why saving historically valuable records is as important as destroying or deleting ones that only have short-term value.

Sure, they may see news of an important records release by the National Archives. Or they go to see exhibits in archives, museums, historical societies.  But they may not think about the insights records preserve about their own places of employment.   Let’s help them see that their stories matter, too.

Whether we work in academic, corporate, or governmental settings, we can look for stories about the places where we work.  And use them to bring the past to life. By providing interesting historical information about the construction of the buildings in which they work.  Or how the employing organization’s workplace evolved over time. And what it took to make change happen.

To connect past and present.  And to remind employees that they are part of a valuable through line.  One that stretches from those who came before to those who will follow.  Preserved for future use by records managers–and those who support them.