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APPROACHES TO Electronic Records Management.

For a long time, records professionals reflected a deep irony about their professional mission and day-to-day work. Although they were responsible in their organizations -- and ultimately to society -- for administration of all recorded information, archivists and records managers seemed unable to cope with the increasing use of electronic information technologies to create and maintain records. For a while, records professionals looked away, even concluding that electronic documents were, perhaps, not records at all. Then they worried about their loss of credibility, the future of their profession, and, ultimately, their jobs. Finally, archivists and records managers began to work on policy, legal, and technical solutions to electronic records challenges and problems, some even acknowledging that such matters really went to the very heart of their responsibilities.

Now, we seem to be witnessing another shift. Recent legislation, such as the Electronic Signatures in National and Global E-Commerce Act (June 2000) along with announcements of technical developments, such as the work of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) with the San Diego Super-Computer Center, Georgia Tech's Research Institute, and several other government agencies, seem to herald a new era of focus by records professionals on electronic records matters.

Increasingly, issues of The Information Management Journal reflect ARMA International's interests in the globalization of electronic records and in standards of practice (ISO 9000 and Australia's AS 4390) having information management implications. Accordingly, this issue of the Journal reflects the more recent, interesting, and successful phase of work with electronic records systems, as well as suggesting continuing needs. Here one finds discussions of legal, technical, policy, and theoretical approaches to resolving challenges posed by the constantly changing technologies being used to create records. It reflects as well the fact that electronic records concerns are an internationally shared problem.

The first contribution in this issue is David Wallace's analysis of the significant court cases concerning the federal government's uses of electronic mail and its scheduling of electronic records. Partially because of the landmark issues raised in these cases, new interest arose about electronic records management research and development. It also suggests an enhanced understanding of the role of records professionals in playing an accountability role in government -- and beyond.

These cases have other implications for information professionals. Many records managers and archivists in the United States look to NARA for leadership in such matters as electronic records management, especially for scheduling, but the court cases suggest a flawed legacy that, nonetheless, has value. Wallace argues for the cases' significance in revealing that a "greater awareness on balancing the best fit between recordkeeping requirements, technological infrastructure, and actual work practices" is desperately needed. The kinds of additional research questions Wallace develops in his conclusion are not very different from those others are asking as new federal records policies continue to be made.

The differing mechanisms for tackling the development of solutions to electronic records management are evident in the discussions of the ongoing InterPARES Project and the Indiana University research projects. The InterPARES endeavor described in an article by Luciana Duranti and Ken Thibodeau is a global effort based largely on the older archival science of diplomatics. While the description of this project seems highly theoretical, advocates for such work argue that it is the diplomatics approach that provides the soundest means by which to manage electronic records over the long term since it is based on centuries of prior experience in working with records rather than the shifting sand of information technologies that are here today, gone tomorrow.

Good theories both explain and predict. Within the theoretical foundations of InterPARES, there is much that enhances our current and future understanding of records and recordkeeping systems. The challenge may be in developing methods for the maintenance of records that are clear and understandable to all concerned. Everyone awaits more detailed information of the practical success of the InterPARES approach in a range of organizational and cultural contexts.

As Phil Bantin acknowledges in his article about practical implications of the Indiana University project, there have been few implementation projects to test approaches to incorporating recordkeeping requirements into electronic information and recordkeeping systems. Bantin persuasively argues the need for records professionals to focus on records and recordkeeping systems rather than being distracted by peripheral issues, to form partnerships to resolve electronic records issues, and to rethink needed skills -- all with an understanding that existing technical solutions alone are not sufficient.

Interestingly, Bantin argues that records professionals need "conceptual models" -- not just techniques -- to approach electronic records management. This is probably the point where the Indiana University and InterPARES projects converge, though Bantin is convinced that traditional methods are not sufficient. His calls for continuing experimentation and creativity are particularly important.

While InterPARES works from theory down to records systems and the Indiana project considers methodologies for understanding records systems, Elizabeth Yakel's article provides yet another important perspective. Yakel's approach is to observe how particular records systems, in this case those supporting radiology in hospitals, are evolving. By observing these systems, omissions in records can be detected, and the need for rethinking traditional records management practices will become more evident. Such efforts realign archivists and records managers with the realm of building practical solutions -- based on real-world experience -- to ensure that records are maintained to support organizations and society.

The article by Kimberly Barata, F. Jochen Kutzner, and Justus Wamukoya on the matter of electronic records management in sub-Saharan Africa is a reminder that an array of challenges remains in developing social, cultural, political, and technical solutions to the maintenance and use of such records.

While describing the fact that developing countries are turning to new technologies, these authors remind us that the necessary infrastructure to make adequate use of electronic records is far from established. Despite heroic efforts of organizations such as the International Records Management Trust (IRMT), we learn that the need for basic education, resources, and appropriate experience is daunting. As those in a part of the world that is more aggressively developing solutions for electronic records management, we must help others address pressing social, economic, and cultural issues by making available what we have learned. We might also understand that our solutions need to go beyond national and cultural boundaries, as well as that there are many sectors in the Western world facing similar challenges. In this vein, our solutions cannot be appropriate for the largest and wealthiest organizations and governments alone if archivists and records managers are to take seriously their larger mandate to maintain all records for purposes such as accountability, evidence, and social and organizational memory.

A mere decade ago, records professionals wondered if they were even in the 20th century when it came to working with electronic records systems. Now, as we are inescapably part of the 21st century, we have a bit more assurance that records professionals are developing an array of solutions and approaches to electronic records management. While we must be even more diligent in building on what we have learned, these articles confirm that a positive perspective is warranted.

Richard J. Cox, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh. Cox has 28 years' experience in the information management field. His focus is on archives and records management. He is a member of ARMA International, the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE), and the Society of American Archivists (SAA). Cox's doctorate is from the University of Pittsburgh. He last wrote for The Information Management Journal on "Employing Records Professionals in the Information Age: An Analysis of Entry-Level Archives Job Advertisements, 1976-1997 in the United States" (January 2000). Cox may be reached at
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Publication:Information Management Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Previous Article:Managing Records and Information in Web Environments: Policies for Multinational Companies.
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