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Archives and records management in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands, a nation with about 16 million people, is famous for its canals, windmills, dikes, tulips, and some of the world's greatest art. It is also a modern industrial nation that is home to Royal Dutch Shell, Unilever, Philips Electronics, Heineken, and many others.

What do the Dutch have to say about information management? What contributions have they made to professional practices in archives and records management that are worthy of global emulation? This article explores various aspects of information management as practiced in the Netherlands.

Historical Background

The Dutch have made significant contributions to archival theory and practice for more than a century. The archival principle of provenance that records should be arranged according to their origins in an organic body or an organic function or activity - was first given theoretical justification in a Dutch manual of archival practice, Handleiding voor het Ordenen en Beschroven van Archiveven (Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives), written by Dutch archivists S. Muller, J.A Feith, and R. Fruin, and published in 1898. T. R. Schellenberg, generally regarded as the doyen of archival science in the United States, referred to this manual as the "most important one of its time."

Dutch archivist Arnold J. Van Laer brought the provenance concept to the United States when he became head of the manuscript division of the New York State Library. The principle of provenance became generally known to the American archival community during the 1920s and is now universally practiced by archival institutions throughout the world.

During the early 1980s, another Dutch archivist, Evert Van Laar, acting under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), conducted the first survey of archives and records management programs in Africa. The report of his findings, published in 1985, contained survey data on 27 African countries. During the ensuing years, this survey proved invaluable in efforts to upgrade the quality of archives and records management in developing countries throughout Africa.

Dutch archivists continue to articulate new archival methods and practices. But what of records management? Dutch contributions to global practice are less well-known in the United States, but Dutch records managers have developed some professional practices that are worthy of global attention, if not adoption.

The Netherlands Enters the Records Business

The government of the Netherlands has had a State Archives Service since 1881. This department comprises the General State Archives (now known as the National Archives) in The Hague, and the provincial records offices located in the 12 provinces of the Netherlands. The department has operated as part of the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sciences and is headed by a keeper of national records.

The earliest records archives laws in the Netherlands were enacted in 1918. Public records legislation dates from 1962, with the enactment of the Public Records Act relating to all current and noncurrent public administration records. In 1968, enabling regulations detailing the requirements of this law were enacted and, in turn, superceded by new laws in 1995.

In 1980, the Civil Service General Secretariat Affairs Decree was issued. This document prescribed highly detailed, binding rules and regulations concerning how ministries of the Dutch government should register and store their records. The decree's primary objective was to provide recordkeeping standards for government records and assure uniformity.

Practice in the 1980s

As in the United States, professional practice in archives and records management in the Netherlands involved physical records, at least through the 1980s. The 1985 report Destruction of Public Records in the Netherlands, prepared by the Dutch inspector of public records for a Europe-wide conference on archives and records management in Budapest, reflects this. According to the report:

* For purposes of efficient records management, as many documents as possible should be destroyed as soon as they cease to be relevant in administrative, legal, and historical terms.

* It is possible to establish in advance what can be destroyed in the future...a disposal list can be drawn up to give permanent authorization to destroy relevant categories of documents listed when the dates established for their disposal are reached.

* All incoming, outgoing, and internal documents are given an individual registration number and are then registered. The registration system should be such that every document can be traced simply by knowing any of the subjects dealt with in the document, or who sent it...and the registration number of the document itself. (Editor's Note: See also "Records Management in Iceland" in this issue.)

* Documents should, as far as possible, be filed according to subject; all the documents relating to a particular case, subject or matter, should be filed together...and arranged according to a classification scheme.

The report indicated that electronic recordkeeping was in its infancy and that the impact of computers on archives and records management was not well understood. Except for financial applications such as payroll processing, computerized information systems were characterized as being in the "experimental stage." Further, the report indicated that "one of the major questions is how to define the information needs of future users," and that "virtually no account has been taken to date of public records law when introducing computerized information systems."

The Dutch archival and records management communities have come far during the past 20 years in evolving from traditional to advanced levels of practice regarding electronic records.

The Revolution in Records Strategy

In 1991, the Dutch minister of the interior published a new strategy for records management in civil service. The report Omslag in Opslag (Revolution in Records) differed substantially from previous policies and practices in several important respects:

* Records management is seen as part of the larger discipline of information management, and therefore no longer assumes separate rules and terminology.

* Information resources management - including records management - must meet the requirements imposed by the civil service and government ministries' critical business processes. Since requirements vary, diversity rather than uniformity is the emphasis of information resources management.

* Civil service managers responsible for particular business processes bear the major burden for managing the information resources related to those processes. The Revolution in Records report provided Dutch civil service managers with guidelines for discharging that responsibility. Each agency must develop its own information management rules subject to state archives oversight.

The principal tenets of the Revolution in Records initiative are:

* Information is managed based on requirements inherent in business processes.

* Content and usage of information takes precedence over form and media in determining optimum management strategies.

* Information management ensures accountability and preservation of the cultural heritage.

The Dutch emphasis on business processes as a core concept of archives and records management predates the "business process reengineering" concept in the United States.

Recordkeeping Regulations for Private Business

A few recordkeeping regulations applicable to private businesses in the Netherlands are worthy of mention. Dutch Civil Code requires business enterprises to retain books of account, accounting records, financial statements, and business correspondence for seven years. Dutch law also authorizes electronic recordkeeping for these record types. The Civil Code states that "with the exception of balance sheets and income statements, all financial data may be transferred to other data carriers during the statutory time of safekeeping. The data must be transferred in its entirety and adequate documentation and descriptions of systems must be retained."

The Dutch statutes of limitations, as prescribed by Civil Code state that "unless otherwise specified by law, rights of action are prescribed by the lapse of 20 years." The limitation for claims related to contracts is five years.

The Melding of Archives and Records Management

Adrian van Heijst, a consultant and lecturer in records management at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, summarizes the traditional relationship between archival and records management practice in the Netherlands. He explains that some years ago, the archival community in the Netherlands embraced the information life cycle concept, and have become involved in recordkeeping systems for current records, thus working more closely with records managers.

Van Heijst also reports that the distinction between archival and records management practice differs in the public and private sectors in the Netherlands. He indicates that most large businesses (e.g., Heineken, Unilever, DSM) have a professional specialist with the title "archivist," who is responsible for both archival and records management functions (Van Heijst 1999). On the other hand, government entities (including municipalities and semi-public organizations such as the Dutch Railroad), are regulated under the Archives Law of 1995. Such entities typically draw a distinction between archives and records management. In almost all cases, government organizations employ a professionally trained records manager responsible for current and semi-current records, while an archivist is responsible for historical documentation.

There is abundant evidence that traditional distinctions between archival and records management practice are changing in the Netherlands, and that these disciplines are melding. In the first place, Dutch archival terminology makes no distinction between "archive" and "records."

According to Eric Katelaar, professor of archivistics at the University of Leiden and Amsterdam, the term archiefbescheiden (archival documents) covers both records and archives - current, semi-current, and historical (Katelaar 1999). Moreover, according to Peter Horsman, a lecturer at The Netherlands Institute for Archival Education and Research, the "traditional borders between records managers and archivists are fading." He notes the archivists' emphasis on preserving document authenticity and safeguarding access to them. No longer do archivists focus on data files. Their main interest in electronic records is specific documents created in the course of a business transaction, and the ability to provide evidence of the business transactions that created and used documents.

Horsman further states that archivists are currently concerned with how they can meet their organization's quality requirements for records, and the subsequent functional requirements for recordkeeping systems, rather than with technology itself. He concludes that the challenges posed by electronic records are global in nature, and thus require "best practice" solutions suitable for adoption by organizations in both the public and private sectors worldwide.

Johan Hofman, director of the electronic records project at the National Archives of the Netherlands, shares these sentiments. In the article "Multidisciplinary Aspects of Electronic Documents," Hofman states that "almost every barrier, physical or logical, seems to disappear in the world of information technology." The interaction between information technology and organizational change has a "crucial impact on record creating and recordkeeping." Thus, the challenge for records managers and archivists is to reposition themselves in this fast-changing world. He continues:

The developments in IT are occurring so fast that the changes in recordkeeping are somewhat delayed and existing regulations in this field do not keep up with IT developments... In their search for solutions, records managers and archivists have also to take into account future developments, such as the object-oriented approach, which will lead to the integration within documents of data and procedures, and compound documents which consist of dynamic relations... The recordkeeping function, including the archival function, needs to be redefined or reshaped in order to be accomplished in an electronic environment. Each discipline involved in electronic records should not restrict itself to its own sphere and perspective... The idea is to look across the boundaries of one's own discipline without losing one's identity.

Hofman's solution is that records managers and archivists must work in close collaboration with IT specialists at the front end of the information life cycle, during what he refers to as the "conception stage" - the time of initial systems planning before electronic records are created.

Despite all the talk in the United States about a closer relationship between archives and records management, these disciplines have a long way to go before confluence is reached. Such confluence was not too critical during the era of visible media, but is absolutely essential during the new era of digital preservation. Unless archivists and records managers work closely together (and with other IT specialists) towards the common goal of ensuring the long-term or permanent preservation of electronic records of enduring value, the digital history of the United States will be lost.

Electronic Archives or Digital Durability

Today, organizations throughout the world face questions concerning how to support the long-term or permanent preservation of electronic records. The Netherlands' archival and records management communities have moved aggressively to address this new paradigm. Hofman states:

The preservation of archival records through time is above all a technological problem. The many platforms that exist, the lack of standardization, the rapid developments in IT, all make it difficult to solve the problem of keeping electronic records available and accessible. Metadata about technical aspects of electronic records, such as format, program version, platform used, system software, etc., together with standardization, can help in solving the problem of how to keep archival records accessible through time.

Els Van den Bent, municipal archivist for the city of Rotterdam, writes that "the creation of electronic a new phenomenon for which a new policy has to be formulated." Her overriding concern for long-term electronic records is the preservation of data in context. "In the new situation, things have to be arranged in such a way that both paper and electronic records can be delivered and processed within the context of their mutual relationships."

Electronic Archives: The MLG Digital Longevity Programme

In 1991, the Dutch general auditor's office issued a pioneering report related to electronic archives and the long-term preservation of electronic records, referred to as the MLG report, (machine leesbare gegevensbestanden). It provided major impetus to the Dutch Digital Longevity Programme and was highly critical of the state of electronic records initiatives in the Netherlands during the early 1990s. According to Huib Vissers, one of the principals assigned to the MLG project, the report highlighted serious failures in the way that ministries of government store digital data: "The physical circumstances under which data were stored were sometimes bad. Furthermore, the access and retrieval of data and files were mismanaged." As a result of the report, a group formed to develop conceptual methodologies for long-term preservation of electronic information.

In late 1995, the Digital Longevity Programme project team published the report Het Papieren Tijdperk Voorbij (The End of the Paper Era). The report stated that the electronic archives/digital preservation problem is "so complex and extensive that, in the short run, no one can see any single technical solution" embracing all electronic records situations. The report recommended that all interested parties in the Netherlands work together to find an integrated solution. In early 1996, the leaders of the Digital Longevity Programme wrote the lower house of Parliament's president with their recommendations for addressing the electronic archives problem and received lower house support.

MLG's central goal is to formulate a new policy for long-term preservation, access and retrievability of electronic records, together with recommendations for implementation. An office established to carry out the project's responsibilities functions to

* conduct an inventory of digital archiving initiatives in the Netherlands

* coordinate and conduct digital preservation pilot projects (to date, over 20 pilot projects are currently underway, and some 200 are projected)

* stimulate new initiatives, including research and development (five research studies have been initiated that address various critical issues related to digital preservation, including shifts in accountability, cost measurement methodologies, the legal/judicial status of digital documents, and others)

* provide technical advice and information to all interested parties (a network of contacts throughout the Netherlands and in other countries has been established, as has a Web site)

Education, Training, and Professional Development

Van Heijst reports that professional education for archivists is required under the 1995 archives law. State, municipal, and provincial archives inspectors must earn an archivistic diploma. Two organizations provide this training: the Stichting Gemeenschappelijke Opleidingen, which has a formal relationship with the Dutch Association of Business Archivists (the Nederlandse Vereniging van Bedrijfs Archivarissen), a professional association of about 250 members; and the Dutch School of Archives at the University of Amsterdam, which educates about 20 archivists and 40 archival assistants each year.

For records managers, the Stichting Opleidingen en Examens voor Documentaire Informatievoorziening en Administratieve Organisatie, provides professional education. This educational organization is managed by Association SOD, the 1,400-member association for Dutch records managers.

Dutch contributions to professional practice in archives and records management during the past 100 years have been significant. We will watch with interest what the Dutch do during the early 21st century and hope to apply the best practices originating from this small but very influential country.


Bikson, T.K. and E.J. Frinking. Preserving the Present: Toward Viable Electronic Records. 1993.

Broens, T. "Destruction of Public Records in The Netherlands." Proceedings of the European Archival Conference on the Creation and Organization of Contemporary Records. 1985.

Doorn, P.K. and H.D. Tjalsma. "Historical Data Archives: Preserving and Documenting Historical Data." Proceedings of the DLM Forum on Electronic Records. Luxembourg. 1997.

Hofman, Johan. "Multidisciplinary Aspects of Electronic Documents, Concept of Electronic Documents Life Cycle, Characteristics and Links with Information Flow/Workflow." Proceedings of the DLM Forum on Electronic Records. Luxembourg. 1997.

Horsman, Peter. "A Knowledge-based Electronic Recordkeeping System." Proceedings of the DLM Forum on Electronic Records. Luxembourg. 1997.

Horsman, Peter. "Digitising the Dust: Archives in the Information Age." Document World. January/February 1999.

Kersten, Albert E. "The Historical Researcher and Electronic Archives." Proceedings of the DLM Forum on Electronic Records Luxembourg. 1997.

Ketelaar, Eric. E-mail correspondence to author, 14 July 1999.

Omslag in Opslag: terugkeer naar informatie-voorziening. 1991.

Schellenberg, T.R. The Management of Archives. 1965.

Van den Bent, E.A.G. "Rotterdam's Activities Concerning the Development of an Electronic Records Policy." Proceedings of the DLM Forum on Electronic Records. Luxembourg. 1997.

Van der Meer, Kees and Jaap J.M. Uijlenbroek. "The Possibilities of Electronic Document Management for Supporting Ad Hoc Processes: A Case Study." Proceedings of the DLM Forum on Electronic Records. Luxembourg. 1997

Van Heijst, Adrian L. M. E-mail correspondence to author, 24 January 1999.

-----. E-mail correspondence to author, 20 June 1999.

Van Laar, Evert. The Status of Archives and Records Management Systems and Services in African Member States: A RAMP Study. 1985.

Vissers, Huib. "The Dutch Touch: Overview of the Digital Longevity Programme in the Netherlands." Proceedings of the DLM Forum on Electronic Records. Luxembourg. 1997.

Waters, Peter M.H. and Henk, Nagelhout. "Revolution in Records: A Strategy for Information Resources Management and Records Management." American Archivist. Winter 1995.

David O. Stephens, CRM, CMC, FAI, is vice president of the Records Management Consulting Division at Zasio Enterprises Inc. He has been a consultant in the field of records management for more than 18 years, and has published books and articles about information management in the United States and abroad. The author may be reached at
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Title Annotation:International
Author:Stephens, David O.
Publication:Information Management Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Previous Article:Personal business records in an electronic environment.
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