Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Domesticating Records Management

In reading Carol E. B. Chosky’s Domesticating Information: Managing Documents Inside the Organization (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006), I have not been this engaged with a professional book, that is, one hitting all my intellectual nerves and affecting my emotions about some aspect of archives, records, or preservation management work, since I read Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold half a dozen years ago.

In this particular case, the author has sought to write a book about records management, beyond the normal how-to manual, that speaks to executive management, reflective professionals, and academics in the field. And, Choksy argues, this is not a book about archives, although archivists, she says, should read it. Records managers “must worry about statues, regulations, and case law,” not “about culture or what scholars will need” – that is what archivists worry about (p. xiii). Records managers are not concerned with culture, Chosky argues, but only with “work.” Records managers are “busy doing. What is of value to us are snapshots of problems, recommendations for a particular circumstance.” Records managers concentrate for obvious reasons on their “how-to” books. The author argues, “we rarely sit back and reflect on how we do what we do – i.e., we rarely analyze our analysis in publications in the form of books and periodicals” (p. xix).

So, long before getting to the first chapter, Chosky has essentially eliminated archives from the records management community as well as seeming to suggest that records managers don’t do research, don’t reflect on their work, and have an extremely narrow utilitarian purpose of serving their masters. Already, early on in reading this book, one may sense that there is something intrinsically odd about her arguments, since her own book is an intellectualization of the work of records managers and certainly the result of a good deal of reflection on her part.

There is, then, some contradiction in Chosky’s own book about such matters. Having made the case that records managers are doers not thinkers, practitioners not researchers, Chosky herself provides, in the first chapter, a solidly researched history of records management. For the ancient origins of records management, the author does what so many others have done – she pulls together an array of histories and other published sources to try to speculate about the origins of administering documents. However, when she turns her attention to the U.S. experience, Chosky delves into the sources documenting the origins of records management. For example, she notes that a 1919 organizational chart of the Dupont Company sales department identifies a “record manager,” the “first use of the professional title I have found” (p. 11). Indeed, once upon a time I examined similar sources, and I never found anything earlier either. Chosky provides a nice orientation to how and where records management emerged in business and government, identifying some of the key texts supporting the origins of the field and honing in on some of the key concepts that supported the foundation of the discipline. Building on her background as both a consultant and an academic, her book supports the assessment that Chosky is more then merely a doer.

If that is the case, what is the purpose of her book? The author carefully explains what her book is about. It is, Choksy states, “entitled ‘Domesticating Information’ to reflect what humans do with information: capture it, add to it, copy it, refer to it, transmit it, retrieve it, make decisions with it, show it, describe it, organize it, study it, and manage it, among many other things” (p. xvii). A few pages later, the author writes, “I wanted to write a work that could help scholars of the fields of information science and informatics to understand not only how records management differs from archives and library science, but also how it could contribute positively to all of those fields” (p. xxi).

How does Chosky proceed to meet these objectives? After the introductory historical background, Chosky takes us through the notion of context as the key defining aspect of a record, the defining of records, the nature of records that the records manager administers, the importance of the concept of the records life cycle, the organization and value of records to organizations, and, as a conclusion, what she sees as new requirements and skills for records managers to be successful in their organizations. In many ways, she has written a provocative and fascinating book, maybe one that will go down as one of the most important ever written. What she may also have created is the natural, and maybe final outcome, in the long, tenuous sixty-year relationship between archivists and records managers.

Throughout the book we find comments on the relationship between records management and archives that will provoke considerable discussion for a long time. In the chapter on context, Chosky argues that “records management is concerned with concepts rather than artifacts. . . . Records management is focused on the organization – corporate, non-profit, or government – not its heritage” (p. 43). One might ask how heritage can ever be disconnected from someone working in an organization, unless we are only thinking of heritage as part of the industry of tourism and recreation. For example, the author states, “culture and human memory are records management issues only when they are business requirements” (p. 43). I would contend that they are always business requirements because an organization is always part of its society and has a responsibility, in the case of culture, and because any institution cannot function effectively without some sense of where its been and its past actions and activities, in the case of memory. While Chosky focuses on records managers in for-profit and government institutions, one wonders about the records manager who works for the cultural institution (such as a museum or historic park).

In her discussion of the definition of records, Chosky again tackles head on what archivists think about this. She argues, “any definition that stems from the archival community, generally does not stand up to the workaday tests required of records management” (p. 53). Instead, records managers derive their sense of a record only from “business requirements.” Chosky sees archival requirements – such as for description and preservation of artifacts, context, and provenance -- as being “onerous” (p. 55). She extends this argument to the work of government records professionals who “must define records according to the relevant government records statutes, regulations, and case law” (p. 71). Chosky especially goes after the concepts of authenticity and reliability in records. She downplays the idea that archivists have anything to do with authenticity – because it is a “claim made by the owner” (p. 57). For records managers, she claims, authenticity is determined by organizations and courts of law; in other words, it is “an outcome defined by others” (p. 57). She contends that “to define what makes a record reliable or authentic means defining a particular organization’s business requirements” (p. 67). Archivists, for her, hold too extreme a view about such matters.

Chosky also attacks David Bearman’s idea of a record being an evidence of a business transaction, a concept widely adopted by many records professionals and referred to in a number of standards, as well as the notion of content, context, and structure as constituting the key elements of a record. Chosky contends that if this idea was really adopted “very little information within an organization would ever be managed.” She believes that records managers only need to know that “evidence is what is presented to a judge or a jury during a trial -- not what happens in the regular course of business” (p. 69). Chosky concludes, “not all records can be evidence” (p. 69). She argues that the notion of content, context, and structure is a “poor mantra” (p. 77), although she is unsure about where the concept came from (and this suggests that she has not read as deeply into the archival literature as she should have done, given the nature of her critique of archivists and their approaches). So, what is a record? Records managers recognize something as a record because it has followed the “path, the policies, and procedures required by that class of records” (p. 78). Or, in other words, a record is “domesticated information—information captured on an external storage device within the context of a particular institution and instantiating a particular type” (p. 80).

Through the book, Chosky labors hard to distinguish the work of records managers from archivists and other information workers, but mostly archivists are her aim. In her chapter on managing records, she skewers document science and diplomatics as being far too limiting, not realizing, of course, that there is plenty of debate within the archival community itself about such matters. In her chapter on the records life cycle, she dismisses the importance of preservation because the “vast majority of documents that we [records managers] manage are kept for a total of six years or less” (p. 143). In her chapter on organizing records, Chosky laments the low regard many organizations hold for records management, adding “arguments of the business benefits associated with effective records management – such as greater productivity, reduced costs of litigation, reduced exposure to litigation – tend to fall on deaf ears.” Records managers, she argues, “do not even deign to raise issues such as authenticity, reliability, and trustworthiness as reasons for funding a records management program because these are of no perceived value to the world of records inside the organization” (p. 170). Even when she addresses the issue of the knowledge about information technology, Chosky contends that such knowledge is not the primary matter records managers bring to the table, but it is, rather, the ability to “address business requirements” and adopt and understand the “language of business” (p. 201).

So, where do we land when we finish with Chosky’s Domesticating Information? Without question, this is one of the most interesting books ever written about records management, a welcome change from the usual how-to manual or technical report. It is a book that will find a welcome place in the graduate programs preparing individuals to work as archivists and records managers. However, much of it seems like a strong reaction, with great emotion, against the influence of archivists and others, such as librarians, outside the field. And I worry that Chosky’s strong focus on business requirements won’t do more harm than good, perhaps even weakening the need for records managers within organizations since the focus seems to be on maintaining records only for the least amount of time possible and for a limited set of potential uses (can’t such limited aims lead to a lessening of need for records managers?). One might also ask about other important issues of professional work, such as ethical and accountability matters, now seeming submerged under the business requirements rubric. However, the breaking of the link between records managers and archivists is the most troubling of Chosky’s aims. While we can see this as part of a natural progression from the initial break more than a half-century ago, the way Chosky depicts it seems likely to undermine aspects of the mission and practice of both archivists and records managers, even if the ensuing debate about this might be engaging.