Peter Horsman The Netherlands Institute for Archival Education and Research

Definition Has one us of ever seen a Records Management System? It would be interesting to carry out an inquiry within the archival community to clarify what we understand by using the word records management system, or rather to demonstrate the confusion among members of the same profession about the concept. It is likely we do have a sort of common understanding about what constitutes records management, but as soon as it comes to “system” paradoxically the real confusion starts. I have purposely used “paradoxically”, since systems theory aims to clarify rather than to create misunderstanding. I hope to make clear in this paper what I understand by the concept of records management system. Probably even more interesting would be an inquiry into the archival concepts of appraisal and disposal (or disposition, depending on your preference for the English interpretation or the North American one). However, I am not going into this part of archival theory. Other papers at this seminar explained the concepts and both theoretical and practical issues related to them better than I could ever do. What we may draw as a preliminary conclusion is the fact that the subject of this paper may lead us to various interpretations. What, indeed, is meant by its title, given by the seminar organisers: “appraisal and disposal as a function of records management systems”? Having a reference model for managing electronic documents and records in public administration, as Hans Hofmann refers to in his paper on the DLM-activities, might certainly contribute to a better understanding. In the present absence of such a model, I shall just use my own model. First, I would like to change “records management” for the broader concept of “record keeping”, and accordingly “records management system” for “record keeping system”. Records management is what records managers do: managing records. Record keeping is what an organisation or even society as a whole must do: taking care of their records, keeping them to serve as memory or evidence of past actions. Furthermore, the words records management seem to imply a distinction between records management and archives management, as if they were two different disciplines, an opinion I absolutely disagree with.

The records continuum I would rather position appraisal in the framework of the records continuum - not making a distinction between records management and the archival function. For my part, appraisal is not a matter of archival function, neither of records management or archives management - as the current international archival terminology has it (see Jari Lybeck’s paper). Appraisal is a matter of good record keeping: a record should be kept as long as it is worth keeping, but not longer than required. The criteria for its continuing preservation are based on administrative, 58

legal, financial, political, societal, or even emotional requirements. Appraisal is not just determining the eventual record disposal - whatever that may be - but a continuous process of determining the records value for one or more of the recognised purposes, related to the costs of preservation. The criteria derive both from the creating individual, the organisation this individual works with, and from the society the organisation is a part of. This concept is much broader than the official definition supports. Moreover, this view is much wider than the borders of a records management system or an archives management system. Therefore I prefer to put it within the framework or reference model of the record keeping system, which does not make the distinction between two archival regimes, at least not at the conceptual stage, but possibly at the implementation stage.

Record keeping system What, then, is a record keeping system? – I shall first tell you what it is not: it is not an automated system, an application or a piece of software.1 You cannot buy a record keeping system; it has to be developed. On the contrary, a record keeping system is of a highly conceptual nature, describing the professional domain of the archivist (in a broad sense). I define a record keeping system as the whole of records, methods, procedures, tools, [meta]data, knowledge, means and persons with which an organisation fulfil its requirements to preserve evidence of its activities, maintain its memory, and preserve its knowledge. Typically, a record keeping system has eight major functions, or rather processes: capture, storage, filing, description, appraisal, preservation, disposal and providing access. Although there is some sequence, many activities are carried out simultaneously. Of course, capture precedes disposal, but much of the description for instance is done at capture by taking in the metadata, as is true for filing and storage as well. As for appraisal, this process starts at capture, by immediately deciding what documents to take in or to leave out, and it ends with disposal, or never, in case of continuing preservation. Once again, it is an ongoing process rather than being carried out at one specific, discrete moment. In our European society every organisation and every individual has a record keeping system, varying in quality from virtually non existent to a high quality, nearly perfect record keeping system. According to quality I ranked and termed them into the following seven levels. 0. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. The decision whether to record facts and acts. This is not a record keeping decision, but a matter of conducting business: no record keeping Writing down facts and acts, but not preserve anything longer than needed for the primary business purpose: minimal record keeping Capture records for preservation, but without any established record keeping policy: laissez-faire record keeping Capture records for preservation, but without any kind of description, intellectual destruction Capture records for preservation, with description, but without appraisal and selection: zero level appraisal - maximal record keeping Capture records for preservation, with description and low-risk appraisal, such as destruction of duplicates and ephemera: spineless record keeping 59

6. 7.

Capture records for preservation, with description, and optimal appraisal and selection: optimal record keeping Capture records for preservation, with description, and optimal appraisal and selection, and with prescription of what records to create: overdone record keeping.

In conclusion: appraisal is a matter of good record keeping, aiming at having those records at use that the creating organisation or society requires, at the lowest costs possible. The record keeping system is responsible for the capture and reliable preservation of all those records that need to be captured and kept, in the most effective and efficient way. A reliable record keeping system should not only take into consideration requirements put on it by the creating organisation, but also meet both present and future societal requirements. A record keeping system has organisational, political and historical awareness.

Appraisal upfront Most of the emerging thinking on appraisal of electronic records seems to agree upon the idea of bringing appraisal upfront, as early as possible in the record life. Within the framework of a record keeping system this implies at capture. The International Council on Archives Committee of Electronic Records even launched in its Guide for Managing Electronic Records from an Archival Perspective (Paris, 1997) the idea of implementing criteria for preservation or disposal at the stage of information systems design, what the committee called the conception stage. Anyway, appraisal at, or even before capture, means implementing and applying the criteria before the creation of the records. As Raimo Pohjola mentions in his paper, those criteria should be based on the creator’s business functions, rather than on the information the documents contain. Indeed, most thinkers adhere now to functional appraisal as has been developed simultaneously in countries such as Canada and the Netherlands, and is being adopted or tested by various other countries. At least with the ideas from the ICA electronic records meeting there will hardly be any other alternative, since one cannot appraise the records themselves that are not in existence as yet. One question, however, is whether current appraisal theories, principles and methods are strong enough to anticipate future requirements. And I don’t restrict requirements to research needs; neither am I only thinking of “permanent” preservation. Almost every day we can read in the newspapers about missing evidence because records were not kept long enough to meet unanticipated requirements. Present methods, techniques and criteria for appraisal are based on the paper world, against the background of the Weberian bureaucracy. The underlying assumption is that processes follow predefined procedures, and that they are clearly rooted in well-established competencies. A further assumption is that activities that should be documented in fact are properly documented, and that everything that has not been documented virtually did not happen, or at least was not worth documenting.


Chan ging doc umenta tion in the d igital wo rld Even in the paper world this assumption falls short: much of policy making has been done, and is done, with no traces in records, at the corridor, in a restaurant, at home or on the golf course. A part of what we call the informal organisation would be worth documenting, and likely has a higher political and social value than the majority of daily paper work archivists are now appraising by techniques such as sampling. It is much like recording oral history, as a matter of fact. In the electronic office environment the borders between formal and informal communication become vaguer, at least it is no longer along the traditional lines of being recorded or not recorded - to be or not to be. One of the many shifts the emerging technologies bring us, is the almost unlimited possibilities of recording information, and moreover of transport and dissemination of information - and people make use of it. I am not directly referring to databases that may often have equivalents in paper index cards trays or filing cabinets. Instead, let us look at electronic mail as an example, of which most of us have personal experience today. Apart from the technology, e-mail appears to be a rather new sort of communication, a socially interesting mixture of what we might call informal and formal communications. That mixture is rather complex. Some messages are merely informal, some doubtless are formal instead. Many messages, however, have a mixed nature, containing both information with a personal flavour and formal business information. In the paper environment many messages would not have been recorded, or rather, never have been transmitted in any kind of written format.2 As far as I know, few, if any research has been done into the evidential and informational values or richness of e-mail systems. But the White House case is certainly not the only possible example. At each level of society we may find similar cases. How, then, to appraise such vast series? Are we able to link e-mail messages to discrete business functions in order to apply functional appraisal? Certainly, sometimes that will be possible; in many cases, however, it is not, simply because of the informal way people communicate through e-mail, also in formal cases. But, if it is not possible to bind messages to business processes, then we cannot apply functional appraisal. Indeed, I consider e-mail rather as a result of a generic communication process. It is a misconception to think that there is a well-defined hierarchy in the business functions of any modern organisation. Nowadays organisations no longer fit into such simple Weberian structures, and it is likely they never really could. Electronic communication processes cross the borders of departments, divisions, functions, and organisations. E-mail is just one example for which rethinking appraisal criteria and methods are required. Other examples can be easily found as the technologies come up with new ways of doing business, such as e-commerce or electronic governance.


Implementation Can we develop criteria to be implemented upfront into record keeping systems with such uncertainty. If one thing is clear, it is the fact that appraisal has to be carried out automatically, by computers, and not directly by appraisal archivists. Criteria have to be built in to software in the form of rulebases, frames, neural networks and other representations of archival knowledge. Electronic record keeping systems will rely upon intelligent software, and it is the archivist who has to teach the software to become “intelligent”. The archival community should work over the coming years on the development of new methods for appraisal and on defining precise criteria for selection. Probably, for the time being we feel uncertain, and we may not have a clear view or solution. One of the solutions I borrow from G.K. Gailbraith is to build in “buffers”, which would simply mean, keep it all, at least for a while. Indeed it would increase the volume of information to be kept, albeit likely for a short term, as long as financial, administrative, or political accountability may be required. Most likely, the records would still be preserved by the creating organisation, so that the information “polluter” pays his own bill. Basically, that is also true for a records management system. An electronic records management system, however, consists for the greater part of software applications and the hardware and netware on which the software is running and the records are stored.#


Basically, that is also true for a records management system. An electronic records management system, however, consists for the greater part of software applications and the hardware and netware on which the software is running and the records are stored.

The best known example is the e-mail comm unication in the White Ho use during the Reagan an d Bush administratio ns. T. Blan ton, The Wh ite House E-mail (1995).


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