Archivist, Meet Records Manager. Records Manager, Meet Archivist. Part II: Opportunity Spaces

July 11th, 2014

George Despres
University Records Manager, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University)

In Part I of this discussion, I outlined the lukewarm, sometimes snippy, legacy relationship between the archives and records management professions and people. Several examples of interaction and recent expressions of mutual interest were briefly reviewed. With the understanding that every institution is unique and will have its nuances, what follows will address areas of overlap and potential integration opportunities that can be achieved between the disciplines in the trenches.

Common Metadata

Shared metadata requirements should be leveraged: both archivists and records mangers inherit legacy collections that may have been poorly identified by the people who generated the documents. Many of the same metadata fields are of mutual interest: certainly date(s), author and authoring department, media format, volume, condition, and custody chain are common and central points of reference for RM and archival stewardship. If either the records manager or archivist within the institution has plugged in this metadata, the corresponding colleague can benefit. In an ideal sequence, metadata entered into records management deposit forms later provide the archivist with a baseline for the historical subset of those deposits (accessions) after the compliance retention period has expired. Depending upon the relative maturity of your records and archives program, the foundation established by one unit should feed the establishment and growth of the other: as I’m establishing a new records management program at Brandeis, our University Archivist provided me with a nice university collections template that served as an institutional “grid” for us to build out some document categories for the retention schedule. An archivist might also help to piece together the historical audit trail metadata for records inherited from defunct departments and terminated employees.

Taming the Digital Deluge

The increasing and guaranteed inheritance of massive and opaque digital collections is broadly referenced above. These legacy collections, often light on context and metadata, are a common challenge. Both professions are now charged with visualizing and acting upon massive amounts of unstructured electronic information—it’s obviously not feasible to click on, open, and review every file and folder when you have thousands or millions of them. Emerging tools that enable visualization, auto-categorization, de-duplication, deleting the ROT (redundant, outdated, and trivial), and machine learning to support them will be of mutual interest. Partnership on analytics and auto-categorization strategy and solutions (maturing as we speak) is a place to start. Cost centers, budgets, and influence can potentially be merged toward technological success in grappling with the volume of digital tidal waves that confront us.

One area of increasing convergence between records managers and archivists is digital preservation. Cheryl McKinnon in KM World recently listed“Digital preservation forces itself onto the governance agenda” as #3 of five major trends “reshaping” records management. Don Lueders has also cited “long-term preservation” as a strategic essential for Next Generation RMs. While DP has been a challenge to archivists, there is a solid standard and framework (OAIS), tools (e.g. the BagIT file aggregator), and other progress in this area that records managers would be well served to investigate with technically literate archivists. The digital revolution caught both archivists and RMs flatfooted: the four-headed monster of media, software, file format, and legacy system obsolescence will require an army to slay. Why not join forces? With more document generation agents going paperless, the challenge will only increase. And long-term retention records, like digital employee records (think termination of employment + 10 years for a thirty-year employee), are making conscientious records managers care about this topic. Within an institution, the two disciplines can stand shoulder to shoulder in planning read-only lockdown, migration, conversion, and other digital preservation best practices and solutions, even if tactical. They can also present a united front to IT against new system acquisitions with proprietary handcuffs or no exit strategy.

Conversely,some records people can share their digital forensic experience with archivists, thanks to partnerships with the legal community.Archivist Cal Lee and SAA have worked to bring over affordable (i.e., archivists’) digital forensics knowledge and tools from the expensive legal sphere. Both professions struggle with the stewardship or curation of the same prickly content formats, which are aging by the moment. Records managers and archivists are typically both confronted with legacy media—archivists to preserve, records managers to produce for business or legal requirements: whether a CEO’s announcement of a new major program in WordPerfect or a possibly exonerating email chain on a 3 ½-inch floppy, both disciplines are trying to “get at” (never mind preserve) waves of legacy digital records that they’ve inherited in all sorts of containers. There exists, if not explicitly, mutual interest in digital forensics. As with digital preservation, the answers aren’t all there yet, but some records managers can begin to help and partner with archivists in this matter.


Records management filters non-historical and transactional records—a core operation—hopefully leaving the “good stuff” for archivists to review. Financial and sensitive human-resources records (highly regulated) are sorted and handled under RM disposition. Archivists normally don’t want sensitive and personal information, like social security numbers, and records managers (not to mention legal offices and information security people) want to destroy this material as soon as there is no obligation or business need to keep it. The records retention schedule, beyond just stating “retain five years,” should also include a field stating “potential archival value?” with Yes/No values for the field. Corporate and other archivists often need to expend a great deal of time weeding and destroying ephemeral, administrative records from historically substantial ones (processing). Sound records management can reduce this need, going forward, by presorting and/or tagging the wheat and the chaff. Another consideration is immediate archival curation for permanent records (e.g., corporate charters, by-laws, and BOT meeting minutes) on initial deposit: acid-free boxes, optimal climate and humidity controls, and long-term batch reformatting can be exercised on collections that would otherwise end up in hot and humid warehouses, or soon-to-be obsolete formats. Grounds for discussion.

Other Points of Contact

The following are additional areas for potential records management–archives discussions:

  • A shared institution means a shared vertical industry, organizational workings, components, departments, stakeholders, document types, and information structures and restrictions (e.g., higher ed, healthcare). In Part I of this piece, I referenced two stakeholder groups that were formed from the same industries, and the commonality between the two disciplines in both has been exemplary. Leverage and share organizational commonality and discovery.
  • Forms management, a component of records management (with its own association), can ensure optimal and integrated RM-Archives service forms. At Brandeis, faculty members were discovering that former and emeritus faculty member biographical highlights were under-documented when external bio queries or obituary questions arrived. As part of an institutional forms management study, University Records Management developed proficiency with several form creation tools. We employed this skill by setting up an online form that enables faculty to enter a small amount of metadata and upload CVs and bibliographies (minus sensitive personal information) for University Archives capture. Several inaugural submissions have come in to date, and we expect to further socialize this form in the future. The metadata overlap was discussed above, and forms is certainly an area where effort can be economized through partnership.
  • Document scanning activities occupy both RMs and archivists, though they serve different objectives and require different levels of quality: auto-feed copying is fine for invoices, but heresy for nineteenth-century manuscripts, so there is some differentiation. The records manager appreciates administrative efficiencies, and the archivist saves wear and tear on hardcopy originals through digital service copies. Preserving integrity throughout the scanning process is important in either instance. A master pool of digitization requirements should be discussed and mutually reviewed on behalf of the institution. This discussion should happen in relation to digital preservation, covered above. Scanning budgets or labor resources might be combined for mutual benefit.
  • While filtering and destroying ephemera has been covered, there may be a few exceptions to this rule. Non-sensitive administrative records—junk at first glance—can be preserved very selectively for the institutional memory, as historical samples or snapshots over time. Like a trophy on the wall of a well-established institution, an early cafeteria menu, a corporate invoice from 1975, an inaugural contract from 1995, an employee badge from 2014 (viewed in 2050), etc. can foster a sense of employee pride in the long heritage of their institution. This is admittedly an archivist-centric interest, yet it illustrates the focus on, and respect for, the record (i.e., the content, stupid!) shared by both professions. It also illustrates how professionals can see, appreciate, and realize a new picture through a broader lens.

If you’re a records manager working at an institution with an archives, or vice versa, reach out if you haven’t. There is power in numbers—mutual watchdogs, mutual advocates, stronger, multidisciplinary agency under the broader information lifecycle management umbrella. While each institution has its own organizational structure, there’s no good reason for fellow info professionals not to be talking with each other. These can be the first steps in a long, shoulder-to-shoulder journey. Take time to at least understand the companion discipline—without bias.

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