Effective Approaches for Managing Electronic Records and Archives

Edited By Bruce W. Dearstyne. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002. x, 174 pp. Index. Available from the Society of American Archivists, $25.00 members, $35.00 nonmembers. ISBN 0-8108-4200-9.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 65, No.2, Fall/Winter 2002)


Overwhelming, insurmountable, insoluble. Archivists and records managers have applied these and many other fatalistic adjectives to the vexing problem of electronic records management and preservation. Richard E. Barry, veteran student of the issue and scene-setting essayist for the volume under review, rightly admonishes us that hand wringing and whining over electronic records must cease. Archivists and records managers, Barry emphasizes, “are required to do what needs to be done to properly preserve and otherwise manage record[s] whether they like the new technologies that produce them or not” (p. 8). There is no magic bullet nor is one likely to appear; but, as the authors in this excellent new collection of essays make clear, information professionals have developed over the past decade a variety of effective, context-sensitive electronic records management strategies. Managing and preserving access to digital records is not and never will be easy; but it is not an impossible task. Government and corporate archivists and records managers seeking to establish electronic records programs should take advantage of the sound practical advice offered in this timely book.

Bruce W. Dearstyne, professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, is both the editor of and a contributor to the collection. Dearstyne, perhaps reflecting his extensive state government experience with the New York State Archives and as former executive director for the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators, weights the volume towards innovative state electronic records programs; individuals involved in state level programs produced four of the eight essays. Robert Horton from Minnesota, Timothy A. Slavin from Delaware, Alan S. Kowlowitz from New York, and Roy C. Turnbaugh from Oregon recount recent efforts by their respective states to establish electronic records programs. John McDonald, former National Archives of Canada information professional, offers the only federal government and non-U.S. perspective with his description of electronic records management activities in the Canadian government. Rick Barry, an independent consultant, provides the kind of deep background on electronic records management that can only come from someone who has been grappling with the issue for more than forty years; while Lee Strickland, an attorney serving as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies, summarizes several of the legal issues affecting electronic records management. Dearstyne’s concluding essay adroitly synthesizes the issues raised by the other contributors and offers his own set of prescriptions for building effective electronic records management programs.

Several themes tie the essays together and can serve as a set of guiding principles for electronic records management programs, particularly in a government setting. Perhaps most critical is the concept that Robert Horton calls “local knowledge” (p. 54). Horton maintains that electronic records programs, although likely to display a “family resemblance” (p. 54) to one another, should be tailored to fit the unique circumstances in which they are being developed. In Minnesota, with a state government culture averse to regulatory pronouncements and embracing a “tradition of self-help” (p. 55), Horton concluded that education and training offered the best prospect for establishing an electronic records program. Minnesota’s impressive accomplishments, most notably their Trustworthy Information Systems Handbook, testify to the wisdom of this approach; but, as Horton emphasizes, the Minnesota model would not necessarily be the right choice in another state—Delaware, for example. Timothy Slavin, in his refreshingly honest critique of Delaware’s initial foray into electronic records management, observes that state agencies are not using the “Model Guidelines for Electronic Records” painstakingly developed by the Delaware State Archives. Slavin admits that the Delaware guidelines, based upon the University of Pittsburgh “Functional Requirements for Evidence in Recordkeeping,” “have proven awkward, lofty, and difficult to defend” (p. 46) and “have been a failure” (p. 45) if judged by their adoption rate. He also reports that the State Archives may not have possessed enough “local knowledge” to design a document that would meet the needs of Delaware state government. Focus group members interviewed to assess the impact of the guidelines suggested that the state archives “would do better to recast the guidelines as requirements and issue them as part of an administrative rule to be incorporated into all system design specifications” (p. 46). In other words, only if compelled to do so will Delaware state agencies implement the archives’ recommended best practices.

A second theme permeating the essays is a 1990s buzzword that, far from being a vacuous cliché, possesses particular resonance in the electronic records arena: partnerships. All of the essayists provide concrete examples of the fact that archivists and records managers cannot manage and preserve electronic records by themselves. In his lucid description and analysis of the impact of e-government initiatives on electronic records awareness in New York state government, Alan Kowlowitz illustrates the collaborative nature of electronic records management work. By working closely with the Office for Technology (OFT), New York’s primary information policy agency, the State Archives was able to influence a number of important electronic records-related policies including e-mail management, document management, and electronic signatures. The State Archives did not dominate these policy discussions but, as Kowlowitz perceptively observes, “OFT’s new role in the electronic records area does not necessarily contradict or usurp the role of the State Archives” (pp. 98-99). Kowlowitz concludes that the archives’ role in the age of e-government “is largely supportive; however, it will also provide an opportunity for electronic records issues to be raised and perhaps addressed by the larger state government community, including agencies that can bring considerable resources and expertise to bear on these issue” (p. 104). John McDonald, who relates a story similar to Kowlowitz’s in his description of Canada’s Government On-Line initiative, also notes the diminished role of archivists and records managers in establishing information policy. Like Kowlowitz, he acknowledges this development as a reality of the digital era and emphasizes that the archival community, if it hopes to achieve electronic records management and preservation success, must redefine its role and establish strong relationships with other electronic records stakeholders: information technology staff, budget analysts, auditors, program managers, and, most critically, chief information officers.

Closely associated with partnerships as an electronic records program principle is the requirement that archivists and records managers add value to the electronic records management debate. As Kowlowitz points out, it is not enough to show up to the meetings; archivists must “earn their place at the table” (p. 102) by contributing substantively to the discussion. This does not mean, however, that archivists and records managers must master the details of every new technology that comes along. Rather, as McDonald advises, archivists should apply their core competency—a deep knowledge of records—to information policy issues. Archivists and records managers are records experts; we know what records are, why they are important, when they should be captured, how long they should be retained, what makes them authentic, and how to make them accessible. This kind of expertise, as all of the essayists observe, is an essential and often welcome addition to digital information policy discussions and information systems design.

Yet, Kowlowitz, Horton, Slavin, and Dearstyne remind us that we cannot rely solely on traditional archival competencies. Archivists and records managers must develop new skills, techniques, and vocabularies in order to establish credibility with our technologically savvy partners and to offer meaningful electronic records management assistance. In addition to improving our understanding of technology, Dearstyne recommends that archivists and records managers at all levels of an organization hone their management, communication, and teamwork skills. He also suggests that we become comfortable with “improvisation, including an understanding of how to blend tradition and innovation, a sense of acceptable risk-taking, and an inclination to take unprecedented approaches and new tacks to achieve agreed-upon objectives” (p. 148). I could not agree more.

Finally, the essays in the collection demonstrate that electronic records programs, at least in their nascent stages, must be opportunistic, adaptive, and open to change. Archivists and records managers have little control over the information policy agenda and, therefore, must be prepared to respond quickly to new developments. Guerilla tactics, described by Cal Lee in the context of electronic records in an article published in the Spring 2001 Ohio Archivist, are often necessary.

Examples of this abound. Horton describes the Minnesota State Archives’ attempts to take advantage of state government interest in data modeling and geographic information systems to introduce electronic records management concerns into the discussion of those topics. Kowlowitz argues that e-government initiatives across the country offer archivists and records managers a chance to broaden awareness of electronic records management issues. Slavin, moreover, hopes to bring an archival perspective to Delaware’s investigations of data warehousing technology and implementations of document management systems. Archivists and records managers must use their “local knowledge,” strategic partnerships, records expertise, and expanded skill sets to identify and seize all available opportunities to promote the management and preservation of electronic records.

One caveat. As I write this review my own agency is in the midst of a budget shortfall that likely will result in layoffs and program cuts. In light of this, a nagging thought keeps running through my mind. What impact will widespread fiscal crises in state government have on the future of electronic records management? Will agencies ignore electronic recordkeeping responsibilities in their effort to provide services in the face of declining budgets? Will archivists and records managers, also struggling to make do with less, eliminate or choose not to launch electronic records initiatives? We may rest on the precipice of an unfortunate irony. Electronic records management, as this book makes clear, should no longer be viewed as an impossible mission. Yet, at the very time when effective and practical approaches to electronic records management and preservation are emerging, dwindling resources could hamper the ability of information professionals to apply those models more widely. To avoid this ironic future, we must heed Alan Kowlowitz’s advice and refuse to “use the lack of resources as an excuse for inaction . . .” (p. 104).

Matthew B. Veatch
Kansas State Historical Society