The Myth of the Paperless Office
By Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper. Cambridge,
Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2001. xi, 231 pp. Index. Bibliography.
$24.95. ISBN 0-262-19464-3.
Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol.
65, No.1, Spring/Summer 2002)
On the day I first started to work on this review, the New York Times
had a front page article on the anxieties generated by the U.S. Patent
and Trademark Office's (USPTO) decision to discard paper files after their
digitization. Entitled "Ingenuity's blueprints, into history's dustbins,"
the piece hit some familiar notes: Thomas A. Edison, heritage, marginalia,
history being lost, Nicholson Baker. No archivist was quoted or consulted,
but a representative of the American Library Association supplied a carefully
qualified, if somewhat ungrammatical, claim, "If in fact some if this
information is being thrown away and it has not been completely digitalized,
that's an issue for us."
The very next day, the Times, carefree of any corporate memory,
published an article about why the USPTO must reduce the amount of time
it takes to process a patent application, which the paper of record deemed
a critical issue in the age of fast developing technology. Among other
things, it noted, "Automation of the entire patent application system
is a central tactic in the agency's effort to reduce pending time." As
I pondered the familiar difficulties of serving two masters, both Ned
Ludd and George Jetson, what suddenly came to mind was the realization
that, again, no archivist was quoted or consulted. Two days, two articles,
two prominent instances of recordkeeping quandaries that archivists could
help to solve and, yet, there was no reference to us.
Our inconspicuous absence also haunted my reading of The Myth of the
Paperless Office. In this book, the authors seek to answer the question
of why paper usage and consumption has gone up steadily during all the
years when information technology developments and information technology
prognostications have led us to believe that paper was on its way out.
Studying work places, work processes, and work flows in a number of organizations,
the authors come to the conclusion that paper has certain functionalities
("affordances" is the term used) that make it desirable, valuable, and
necessary. We can make better use of paper, they argue, and, by studying
its qualities and its applications, we can make much better use of information
technology, but we have no reason yet to make a "paperless office" a practical
This assessment has some especially interesting implications for those
of us involved with electronic records. The implications of this particular
book for everyone in the archival profession, though, should be noted
immediately, because of the eerie resonance with the Times' articles
about patents. Despite dealing with a host of issues intimately involved
in our special area of expertise, Sellen and Harper seem unaware that
we exist. This is a research project into a topic that totally neglects
all that we have done in the field. All the paraphernalia of our particular
intellectual expertisejournals, programs, Ph.D.s etc.are so
much undiscovered territory.
The authors, of course, are not archivists, and they work here primarily
on an anthropological modelthey go into the field to study records
creators in their native habitatsso their lack of awareness of any
archival literature might be understandable. But what seems staggering
is that in none of the workplaces they visit does any informant mention
archivists or records managers or refer to archival or records management
practices and policies. Of course, not every organization has a formal
records management program, but every organization has some sort of de
facto policy in place, if only to deal with financial or human resources
records that have high legal profiles. But apparently either nobody said
anything at all or nobody said anything that Sellen and Harper thought
worth recording. This isn't like the Sherlock Holmes story of the dog
that didn't bark. This is more like some alternative universe, where the
young Jenkinson was hit by a bus or Schellenberg got into law school,
and archivists never left the rare books room.
In our absence, and this is where the book gets really interesting, Sellen
and Harper do not neglect records and the concerns they raise; they note
them and deal with themthey invent a wheel, even going so
far as to devise a graphic of the document life cycle (p. 203). They had
to come up with something, as the situations they encountered were so
dire: "Banks, law firms, and records offices require enormous amounts
of space for their archives. Much of this is to preserve a paper trail
of past actions and events. Every letter, every transaction is kept just
in case it may ever be needed. In fact, most of these documents are never
accessed and never needed. Some of these paper files are kept as legal
necessity. Many are kept because they provide a kind of emotional security
blanket" (p. 28)
In some ways, this is comfort, albeit cold. Pace Voltaire, it seems,
even if archivists didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent them.
Just as a practical matter, Sellen and Harper demonstrate that somebody
has to resolve that costly tension between legal necessity and angst-driven
obsession. And on that intriguing note, this book presents us with the
opportunity to evaluate a novel perspective on archival functions. What,
we can ask, did these two authors write on their blank slate?
The first note is that, here, records are considered proprietary, in
the same sense as a proprietary software application or file format. They
are so inextricably linked to their creators that they cannot easily be
shared. For example, in a study of records at a chocolate manufacturer,
files are deemed so idiosyncratic that "anyone other than the owner would
not be able to glean much from the file without the owner's being present
to tell them about what was in it and how it was put together." This was
because the records "supported rather than constituted the
expertise" of the owners (italics in the original) (p. 129). In another
company, Sellen and Harper learned the same lesson. Records were of little
use (and, in fact, little used) without their creators: "When workers
moved on to a new project, the knowledge was in their heads, not in the
leveraging this knowledge was best done by bringing together
effective project teams as and when necessary" (p. 39). As a result, simply
saving files is purposeless, as "documents do not speak for themselves."
To create some value, to realize the potential knowledge a record may
have, it takes "work to make its meaning, provenance, and importance clear
to others" (pp. 133-34).
Sellen and Harper do not spell out how to do that, although they do stress
the difficulties. As a result, while not introducing any specifically
postmodern gloss to their work, they do hint at records' essential indeterminacy.
This comes up in a number of instances. In a discussion of "information
ecologies," the authors note that "different forms of information are
made useful by their interdependence with other forms of information."
Those other forms are various, covering anything from a report, a file,
a wall chart or a work plan, but especially "the minds of the people using"
the records (pp. 188-89). Those cannot all be retained as archives, so,
at this point, we have reached an understanding of a context that cannot
easily be captured, with the consequence that fixing meaning to any record
becomes entirely problematic or, at least, arbitrary. That possibility
is also raised in the discussion of the creation of records. In a study
of the compilation of police crime reports, the authors conclude that
"accurate crime reporting is a process that by its very nature needs to
unfold over time," with numerous participants, phases and considerations
(p. 121). What results is an artificial documentnot simply evidence
of what happened that night, say, but a complex construct of research,
dialogue, and social work.
By now, one could reasonably ask, "What's the point of saving anything?"
There are, as the book notes, some legal requirements that organizations
must respect, regardless of whether the results warrant the effort. Above
all, though, Sellen and Harper draw attention to the fact that indeterminacy
is a quality that may frustrate objectivity, but can promote use. In that
context, what constitutes the archives is less important than how the
archives are maintained. Therein lie the disadvantages of paper. "Paper
simply does not afford widespread awareness and access for a large audience
of potential consumers . . . paper is an outdated, unsuitable technology
for preserving and leveraging knowledge of the past" (p. 169). In contrast,
technology tells a different story. It fosters widespread and remote access
over networks; fast, exhaustive searches of large volumes of information;
flexible organization and reorganization of information; links to related
material; and easy modification of content (pp. 170-72).
All these qualities promote use, particularly in the sense of establishing
a new sense of ownership and of assigning new meaning to information within
a new context. They also throw some light on the document life cycle proposed
in this work. Sellen and Harper categorize records in terms of "hot, warm,
or cold." Hot records are in use now, serve multiple and immediate purposes,
need to be readily at hand, and are best utilized in a paper format. Warm
records have just served or are just about to serve an immediate need,
should also be kept readily at hand and, again, are best in paper (pp.
132-33). Cold records are the "dusty archives" (p. 169). As paper, they
have no immediate purpose, nor, as time passes, people leave, and memory
fades, do they have advocates in or value to the organization. As represented
in the book's vision of a document life cycle, it is only some enabling
technology and a conversion to digital form that allows cold records to
once again become hot and to reemerge as knowledge, to be researched and
re-created for use in other activities and other records (p. 203).
With this, we reach the definition of an archives that justifies its
costs, particularly in terms of the return on investment necessary to
implement information technology on a significant scale. The authors argue
that a retention schedule based on usehot, warm, coldlends
itself to the intelligent adaptation of technology and work practices.
In this schema, paper records always have a place, so we will not at any
time soon see a paperless office. But we can and we should, Sellen and
Harper think, start seeing paperless archives.
This conclusion does have some tendentious aspects. As noted, the authors
are not subject matter experts, particularly in the area of archives;
they are acting as ethnographers and thus are largely hostage to the quality
of their informants. Obviously, their informants have some faults. None,
for example, mentioned any of the larger social issues that animate archivists
and routinely justify our workaccountability, heritage, history,
etc. None, seemingly, was an archivist or a records manager. What can
we gain from reading this book, then?
While we can certainly dispute the fine points and even many of the broad
ones, we should appreciate the work's potential value as a mediumit
conveys to us the views and opinions of the people we have to work with
in any large organization. Sellen's and Harper's informants are the constituents
any archivist in a large organization has to reach, especially to ensure
that new recordkeeping systems address archival concerns. Their emphasis
on the internal usage of records and on return on investment, as the rationale
for recordkeeping and for implementing technology, are starting points
for discussion and negotiation. If we read this book as a report from
a focus group, unmediated by our preconceptions, then we can use it as
evidence of the expectations our partners have. Our absence in the picture
can give us a clearer view of the landscape into which we have to fit
and allow us to refine our analysis of how to implement appropriate recordkeeping
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