Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Have You Talked to Your Archivist Lately?

I had the good fortune and opportunity to attend the SAA (Society of American Archivists) Business Archives Colloquium that was hosted by Motorola and McDonald's today.

I had the opportunity to chat with a number of archivists and they had a lot to say about records managers. At one point, I commented to Motorola's Archivist, "I thought I was going to a SAA meeting, but it looks like an ARMA meeting has broken out."

By and large, I found that many archivists "get" records management. They see the fit between our two professions and they see the synergies that come about when the professionals talk and work together. In some cases, the archivist also manages records management or ends up being the de facto records manager. At the core of it, we can strengthen an archival collection. We have the "stuff" that they collect. We also often have it already described and categorized in a recognizable manner that makes their appraisal process run more smoothly.

But sometimes records managers get in the way. We're still seen, in some cases, as Conan the Shredder, with no regard for history or long term value of records. One archivist mentioned that his records managers made him destroy sections of company publications that "had no archival value". That means that he has a pile of publications lacking articles or pages. Another archivist bemoaned the lack of training that a recent "records manager" that came to her company had. She spent three months trying to train someone that had no background in records management and pleaded with him to go to ARMA meetings to get some training. This same "records manager" barely had a high school diploma and had previous job experience in retail. He happened to ride the train with his new boss. Yet another archivist described the series of "bungee" records managers that she has had to deal with. They are managers in holding patterns who are assigned to records until something else comes up for them. Once again, this archivist points them (usually unsuccessfully) to ARMA and spends a lot of time giving them basic records management training.

In general, what I heard is that many records managers fail to even make the attempt to talk to the archivist. And many of those that do, stay overly focused on blind obedience to perceived notions of absolute disposition (i.e. destruction) of records at the end of a retention period.

Where there is a successful co-mingling of programs, the following characteristics are mentioned:

1) The records management policy addresses transfer of records to the Archives.
2) Retention schedules call for "archival review" of select record series.
3) The archivist has input into how record series are described and named.
4) The archivist is a part of the records management governance structure.
5) The archivist is part of the destruction review process.

I also heard some things today that quite surprised me. Business archivists sometimes scoff at their colleagues in non-business archives. Business archivists deal with the very same realities of corporate management that we do, fighting for resources and untangling merger, acquisition, and divestiture records. They are often "gifted" with records "stuff" and generally don't subscribe to every dotted "I" and crossed "T" that some of their colleagues feel are important. They make spot appraisal decisions and make hard decisions to de-accession records that have less value than originally thought. They are very much focused on adding value to their companies and getting out of the "curiosity shop" business.

ARMA and SAA do work together, but clearly we need to do more. There are a number of opportunities for our organizations and professionals to collaborate:

1) Records managers need to hear from business archivists at ARMA educational sessions and learn basic appraisal.
2) Archivists and Records Managers need to work together to develop appropriate policies to ensure that records can be retained in corporate archives without running afoul of spoliation or "selective destruction" charges in litigation. Further, we need to educate legal professionals on preservation of historically significant records.
3) Archivists need resources to turn to when they have to deal with records management issues.

A long time ago, a very wise archivist pounded into my head that "archives and records management are two sides of the same coin". I have never forgotten that. I had academic training in archives as well as records management when I began working 22 years ago. That first job was at the Illinois State Archives as an Archival Intern. Had a position opened up in the Archives Section, rather than the Records Management Section, I might have ended up as an archivist, rather than a records manager. I joke to archivists that "records management pays better" (it's generally -- and very unfortunately -- true). Like some records managers, archivists are passionate about their work. Most of them don't dream of running a records management program -- they have no desire to be immersed in our world. I commented to one archivist that she should be running records management as well as archives in her company and she rolled her eyes. She finds our world too complex and we wear entirely too many hats. She felt that she could never grasp all the issues we deal with. I think that was a compliment.

Those folks in your corporate archives aren't a threat; they are allies. Spend some time with them and learn how you can work together. We're all records professionals.

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