The Power of the Record


George Despres, CRM
Program Director for University Records Management, Brandeis University

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

After some recent gloom and doom posts about future challenges to the profession and fact denial and fake news, it’s probably time to take a slightly more glass half-full perspective of our job. People in our line of work can always use a boost. And there is power in the record that can be promoted more aggressively. This may be an exercise in preaching to the RM/IG choir, but here goes….

Records and Records Management Needs Are Everywhere

Records stories permeate the daily news: the recent front page-headlining gaffe at the Oscars awards was a good (bad?) old fashioned RM error. The wrong envelope was delivered to the presenters of the most important award in the program. Shock, confusion, embarrassment, and possible disciplinary action at PWC ensued. This was one of the few instances this year when a non-political (records!) incident upstaged politics in the headlines. Speaking of politics, the last U.S. presidential election–regardless of your party affiliation or non-affiliation–was affected by the status of records; email records, in private vs. official places, and by hacking and claims of hacking, all for a lack of the information management controls that we promote in our organizations. Records are front, center, and everywhere.

Two other recent headlines within a few weeks of each other caught my eye. In February, authorities built a DNA profile of a person of interest related to the slaying of a New York City woman running near her mother’s Massachusetts home last summer. That same month, DNA evidence from another victim’s fingernails led to the arrest of a man charged with murdering her as she ran near her parent’s home in New York last year. One only needs to watch a Forensic Files rerun to appreciate the impact of records on catching bad guys. Powerful stuff. But we in the profession (other than lawyers) may forget the impact of the record on criminal justice and forensics when focused on enterprise administrative records.

In our “Is not!” “Is, too!” times–what Robert Samuelson calls the “age of disbelief”–the power harvested from records takes on added viability. Facebook recently added “disputed” tags to bogus social media news that users flag, or that sniff test sites like debunk. While Facebook’s move will be viewed by some as hyper-editorialized, anti-free speech material, our culture (at least in the West) is in desperate need of claiming the power and clarity of the record, probably more so than ever. These days enable us to take stock of our own importance as the profession of the record, to set things straight.

The individual can take solace in the record, to an extreme. Dale Carnegie wrote about how the record, precedent, and laws of probability have been used to combat humans’ greatest fears and worries. He relays the story of Frederick Mahlstedt, who became paralyzed by fear in a trench near Omaha Beach during World War II. With German bombers dropping payloads all around him each night, Mahlstedt became increasingly gripped by dread. By the fifth night, he realized he had to do something, psychologically, before losing his mind. So he reminded himself that five nights had passed, and that he and every man in his unit were still alive. He recovered to the extent that he eventually slept through some of the bombing raids. Similar observations have been made regarding the resolve of many British citizens during the Blitz in WWII. The “record” of survival equates with a sense of security among the most dangerous conditions. The record of not having died or been seriously injured among chaos fortifies human posture. Pretty powerful stuff.

The range of what records can be and how they can be used is powerful. A 59-year old man was indicted after a house fire in Ohio last year. He was the homeowner. Though he claimed to have accomplished several frantic tasks during the blaze, investigators and a cardiologist showed that his pacemaker data told another story. While there’s also a Fifth Amendment discussion here, “pacemaker-data-as-record” doesn’t come to mind every day. And while pacemakers have been around for awhile, a whole relatively new and future breed of IoT objects and wearables promises to proliferate records everywhere – more power. Amazon and Google home voice assistants, always listening by default, mean still more records and record implications.

Beyond the Walls of Our Profession

Records Management in partnership with Knowledge Management can be powerful across the organization. Five years ago, Lucinda Duranti and Sherry Xie made this point and noted the absence of RM-KM relationships in the literature. There hasn’t been a notable change on this matter, as far as I can see. But harnessing the power of knowledge as record and getting intrinsic knowledge into record form should be in the interest of the records manager. We need to harvest a better and more thorough KM relationship.

More broadly, our profession, IMO, needs to integrate more and better than we have with other related and “nearby” disciplines, like KM. Each year, we have excellent conferences–ARMA, AIIM, MER–I’ve attended them all multiple times, and they can be counted on for great sessions, engaging vendor floors, insights, leading edge case studies, keynote inspiration, and collegiality. But at each of these conferences, our RM/IG visionaries are essentially preaching to the converted, as I pretty much am with this blog posting.

We need to break out of our professional ranks and communicate our message in spaces like KM, libraries, information ethics, and others, as we have done to an extent with info security, legal, and historical archives. For example, I’ll be presenting on The Principles (can I still say “GARP”?) and the ethical implications of info mismanagement at the Info Ethics Roundtable next month. That my RM session can come to an info ethics audience as a novel topic, somewhat out of the blue, is inexcusable. The power of the ethical implications of RM/IG must be promoted more. Likewise, in a prior talk, I was stunned by how unfamiliar my audience of academic librarians was with RM: among about 200 people, two hands went up in a sea of blank faces when I asked them if they were familiar with our discipline or knew of RM programs at their institutions. While preparing to post this, I came across an excellent piece by Gordy Hoke, similarly calling for more integration with legal and IT, whom we should already be in bed with.

We should seek forums, conferences, and publications outside of our profession in which to spread our mission and build partnerships under the big tent. I’m not suggesting that this isn’t happening at all, but rather that it isn’t happening enough, since most people outside of our profession still don’t seem to get us-including those who should, and those who could be valuable visibility partners. Rather than just crafting RM within our vertical industries, we should take RM out to the verticals. This doesn’t mean that we can’t still focus on our current jobs and institutions. Just a matter of upping our efforts. We have a genie in a bottle: the power of the record will never be fully realized until we manage to socialize it outside of our own ranks. We can be bigger than we are. We may envision this as a glass ceiling to the RM/IG purpose.

Let’s win one for the Gipper. Onward, upward, and outward.


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