Tuesday, March 25, 2008

AIR: A Big Dog and Relics

The adventures when we were closing churches were numerous. This one still makes me chuckle... and cringe.

We head off to the South Side, West Englewood. The neighborhood is impoverished, but had once been the "newer" part of the Back of the Yards neighborhood. At one time, very ethnically diverse. The day's assignment was a parish that was very unique. Perhaps 20 years before, it had been a reasonably wealthy parish for the neighborhood and had built a new church. The pastor who built the church was still there, even as the parishioners moved away. Many of those folks would come back every Sunday, but their numbers were declining. Apparently, the church was also stuck in a time warp and the pastor still said the old Latin Mass.

So anyway, we roll up one morning. There is s small parking lot in front of the rectory. We park and I step out. There is a three or four foot fence separating the parking lot from a small lawn in front of the building. Off to the side, I see a much taller chain link fence. I open the gate and ring the doorbell. Within seconds, the largest dog that I have ever seen is paws and head above the six foot fence. It is very unhappy that we are at the door. I about jumped out of my shoes. I recall taking several steps back towards the van and my boss laughing at me. All I could think of was that I needed to be just one step faster than him getting into the van.

The door opens and the caretaker greets us. He tells us that he'll be right back because he has to secure the dog door. It seems that this dog (a Great Dane) is only obedient to the pastor and just tolerates the caretaker. He's back a couple minutes later and tells us that the dog is a great watchdog and they never have problems around the church. They've told the local Police District about the dog as well and if the police ever have to enter the rectory, they will likely have to shoot the dog. I really wanted to go check how secure that dog door was...

So we set to work. The pastor pretty much ignores us as we start packing records. We're appraising parish bulletins when the mail arrives. I notice a bunch of small mailing tubes. The pastor clears his desk and starts opening them. Inside each tube are circular containers with something inside and a paper attached to the container. It takes a few moments and it dawns on me that these are relics.

For those of you who aren't Catholic, relics are objects that have been associated with a holy person (in particular saints) that are preserved and venerated. The practice declined after Vatican II, but most churches will have a relic of the patron saint in the church (typically in the altar). relics are divided into classes. A first class relic is generally some part of the person. It could be hair, a bit of bone or the entire body. A second class relic is typically a possession of the person. A third class relic is generally something that touched the person. Relics were quite a business in the Middle Ages and became something of a center for abuse. Nonetheless, many people continued to venerate these objects and this pastor not only venerated relics, but collected them. What we were watching was the latest additions to his collection being delivered.

As he shook out the containers onto his desk, he was separating them into piles as he read the documents of authenticity. I could hear him mentioning the name of each saint and the relic class. He would also examine some of the relics and smile if it was a particularly good one. I had this flashback to opening a pack of baseball cards as a kid and hunting for the elusive Reggie Jackson card...

It was amusing and sad at the same time. The man truly was locked in a time warp. We were done in short order and took our leave. That dog bade us a very angry farewell.

ATR: The Once and Future Records Manager

Mimi Dionne (who I think hates it when I write about her blog), asks the following question: "Do RIMgrs REALLY see the Organization?" Her question is really about real time vision of an organization and what is going on.

My perspective to that question is much broader and less real-time. In the past, I have always said that the best thing about this job is getting to understand how the business works -- how things tie together, what the company does and what makes up all the elements of the company. This has been a great job, being able to look into the nooks and crannies of a wide variety of companies and organizations. I have always felt that after a couple years with a company (or one very thorough records inventory), you probably know more about how a company really works than most executives in the company. We may not know the numbers, but we should know how information flows.

The real-time will tend to be situational. As my job evolves and I get more involved in litigation, investigations and information security, I tend to see the less pleasant aspects of what goes on in a company. And many of those things are real time and involve very real and significant events. And many of these events never get to the C-suite, but an awful lot do. Underlying most of those events are records in one form or another -- and our ability to deliver the right records, to the right people, at the right time.

The profession of records management is at a significant inflection point. For a long time, records managers have been looking for opportunities to break through the cardboard ceiling. I believe that the opportunity is now, but only the very best will have that opportunity.

The opportunity is to identify where you can most add value to your organization. Where is the need and exposure in your organization most critical? Where are there gaps in your records management program? Where is the company spending money on records needlessly? For my organization, the driving force for good records management is litigation. Getting electronic records under control and getting the discovery process standardized means not only better results in court, but far less cost on the way to the courtroom. For other organizations, basic compliance is the hot button. Still others have the opportunity to drive better business practices by using technology to deliver records electronically.

I have always been an advocate that it is a far better job to feed the elephant than to sweep up after the elephant. Records management has been a "sweeping up" job for a long time, and while that job is important, it is seldom valued until the stuff we sweep up begins to pile up. And the visibility from that end of the elephant isn't very good. What you want is the opportunity to really manage the records of your organization, through the entire lifecycle, with a particular focus on managing records far better when they have the most value to the organization.

A number of years ago, I bristled at the records managers who used terminology that talked about "Information Risk Management" as if a mere records manager could possibly influence that across an enterprise. In many respects, I'd like to say that I was wrong and that I didn't take the opportunity to run with that ball for fear of running across the well-manicured lawns of other folks in the organization. The reality is that, today, my job is truly about information risks and the management of those risks. This is a cooperative effort, working with information security, lawyers, and investigators. It is about working with IT and finding ways to reduce the volume of information that is being created and maintained. It is about ensuring that we can find all that stuff when it is needed and getting rid of the stuff that we don't need. What we bring to the table is the ability to translate the legal and regulatory requirements into IT-speak and translate the limitations of technology into lawyer-speak. It is about creating record-keeping requirements that make sense for the users, the lawyers, and the IT folks. And it is doing that consistently and within the bounds of the risk profile that the organization wants to accept.

So my answer to Mimi would be that we have the opportunity to see how the entire organization works. We have the opportunity to help people make real-time decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. We have the opportunity to add real value to an organization by applying our competencies where they can do the most good. Identifying those opportunities comes from our vision of how the organization really works and where our skills can have an impact.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

AIR: Appearances that Matter

Yet another adventure back when I worked for the Archdiocese involved a role-reversal.

My boss at the time (who I consider to be a mentor and one of the best bosses that I have ever had the privilege to work for) had the remarkable ability to morph himself into a variety of personas. He came of age in the late '60's and retained a beard and long-ish hair. He grew up in the Bronx and could turn a tough guy persona on and off.

Anyway... we're fully into the mode of "If it's Tuesday, it must be St. Sassafras." We had a very lengthy schedule of stops that Spring. Generally, my boss sent me and our records technician out to make most of the pickups, although he would substitute himself from time to time. The night before a particular parish run, he told me not to wear jeans. I should wear my usual office attire (Dockers and a dress shirt), but add a tie. He'd explain later.

So next morning, I show up at the office, somewhat more dressed up than usual and see my boss. He's wearing a bandana, carpenter shorts and a ratty t-shirt. "Trust me on this one. I'll drive." So we set off. He explains to me that he is going to do the heavy lifting and that he wants me to provide him with direction and do the inventories. In other words, I was in charge. Sounded good to me. The day was looking to be hot and most of these places tended to have lots of stairs.

We arrive, I go to the front door and introduce myself. My boss is outside unloading the empty boxes and handcart. I go in and I'm shown (very coldly) where the records are. My boss comes in and asks me where I want things set up. I tell him and he brings in all the supplies. I notice that he's carrying stuff like his back hurts and I ask him if he's ok. He winks and says, "Just go with it." I'm liking the arrangement, but the back of my head is trying to figure out the game. So I start scribbling and tagging and he starts filling boxes. I notice that he is also chatting up the office staff. They are very unhappy about the closure of the parish and I overhear some of their comments. They are seriously unhappy and have much to disparage about the heritage of the people "Downtown". They are also very concerned about where their bingo program will go (that perked my ears -- the church is closing -- why in the world are you concerned about the bingo games?). So we clean the place out. I notice that my boss seems to have the staff very open and honest in their rants about the Archdiocese. If I walk into the room where they are talking, the conversation shifts and my boss gets back to work. I can tell he's working something.

We finally finish loading the van and my boss walks up to me. He asks me for a couple of his cards (he would always conveniently "forget" his business cards when talking to vendors and make me give out one of mine, so I started carrying a few of his cards). At the time, he was an Assistant Chancellor for the Archdiocese and had been granted Canonical faculties by the Archbishop -- that's a pretty big deal. I hand him a card, he winks and I follow him back in. He walks into the office, takes off his bandana, and hands a card to each of the people working in the parish office. He visibly straightens up and says, "I am so sorry. I forgot to properly introduce myself. I am the Assistant Chancellor for Archives and Records. The entire conversation that we had today is something that will be of interest to the Chancellor and Cardinal. I'll be meeting with them later today. I'd suggest that you take your personal belongings home with you." His tone and the look in his eyes made *me* take a step back. The looks on their faces were something to behold. I had to bite my tongue to keep from smiling. He didn't wait for a response. We at least had the courtesy to get off the property before we busted out laughing. Unfortunately, on the serious side, there were some very unfortunate things going on in that parish. There was a reason that they were concerned about where bingo would be held.

I've never forgotten that day. Part of it was the role reversal and the willingness of my boss to step in and do the work that we were doing. Sometimes it is just what had to be done; sometimes it was for a purpose that we didn't necessarily understand at the time. But more than anything else, it was a lesson that appearances don't always make the measure of the man.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

AIR: Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but Names are Completely Unexpected

There are more adventures from my Local Records Unit days. This one comes from my second job, working for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Around 1990, the Archdiocese was faced with massive closings of churches and schools. This was a long overdue process, closing institutions that were financially unsustainable due to changing demographics. It was a very difficult process, both for the people still attached to those institutions, and for those of us who had to help close them down. We had many adventures. You'll read about many of them.

This adventure found me in a small suburban parish. Generally, when we showed up, the parish had to come to grips with the inevitable. We were hauling out all of the old records and generally leaving a few current records for the last months. The only people to follow us were the movers.

Unfortunately, because so many of these closings were taking place, there was very little interaction between the parishes and "Downtown". The led to some significant hard feelings and those of us "from Downtown" who showed up on the premises often caught the brunt of emotions.

I don't recall what records we were moving, but this parish found me with the inventory sheets, rather than the boxes that day. I was tagging boxes and writing down the contents while one of the guys loaded the van.

At some point, I came nose to nose with a parishioner. The guy must have been at least 80. Very heavy Eastern European accent, fire in his eyes and a finger in my face. The man proceeded to curse me in several languages and accuse me of personally closing *his* church. He wanted answers and I'm pretty sure he wanted to kick some butts. I took a step back, drew up to full height and width, set my stance at shoulder width and waited to see what he was going to do. I knew that somewhere in the Pastoral Center Handbook there was probably a prohibition against decking a parishioner. I wondered if my clipboard would deflect a punch. He ranted on for a while and seemed to start to lose some steam. I stood there listening. He finally took a breath, looked me in the eye and said, "I survived Stalin. I know Stalin. You are worse than Stalin." He turned and walked away. There are some things in life that you simply can't answer.

That one shook me for a while. While I had been working in records management for most of my young career, I was still hanging out with archivists. They tend not to be confrontational sorts for the most part (ok, I know some exceptions). I was still a pretty green kid, barely five years out of the seminary myself. And I often found that size tended to deflect confrontations. But the personal nature of the confrontation really shook me that day.

We were loading up boxes of records, but we were killing this man's spiritual home. Whether you ever know it or not, whether you ever experience it or not, some records have very personal values to people. They are not always "obsolete", or "non current", or "inactive". They can represent life, and freedom, and the health of an organization and its people. They contain the life and the spirit of an organization. Sometimes other people see that much more clearly than we do. This man did.

It would be a long while before anyone else ever threw words at me that stuck. That story, in a future post.

AIR: Records Surveys Should Not Require Use of a Large Stick

At some point in my two year adventure with the Local Records Unit of the Illinois State Archives, I found myself in a small, impoverished suburb south of Chicago. The Village Hall was built in the 1920's and that was its high point. By the time I got there, the town barely had money to pay its employees. But they wanted to get rid of some records, so they needed a survey and retention schedule.

This was a pretty small town, so the inventory of current records went pretty quickly. The Clerk's vault had most of the records and all of the Minute books for the village. That was kind of interesting because it had never been upgraded from what was installed back in 1920 or so. When I had finished all of the offices, I asked if there were any other records. The clerk made a face and said, "I'll be right back." She came back with a key and a very big stick (think really thick broom stick). She took me around the corner and unlocked a door. Beyond the door was a staircase into the basement. She ceremoniously handed me the stick and said, "You might want to give those boxes a whack before you open them." Um yeah. "And we get some water down there once in a while, so I hope you're not allergic to mold." Okaaaaaaay....

So down I go. It was pretty clear pretty quickly that "some water" was perhaps several feet. I was hoping that the rats weren't good swimmers. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I could see the boxes. It was clear from ten feet away that these boxes had seen "some water". I approached the first pile and gripped the stick. If the stick had been a samurai sword I would have cleaved the box in two. I held my breath waiting for scurrying noises. It was quiet. So I gingerly opened the lid.

Well, there was a reason that the rats had left town. They were disgusted by the potential living quarters in those boxes. You see, "some water" was probably any number of soaking floods of god knows what sort of polluted water. A box of invoices was now a box of moldy, mildewy pulped paper.

This would be an "eyeball inventory". I took note of the labels on boxes that I could read, looked for old dates, and guessed at some volumes. I flagged all that stuff as "effectively destroyed". I was back upstairs inside of ten minutes.

The Clerk was clearly surprised to see me. I handed her the stick and told her that it had not been used in anger and that the boxes were devoid of residents -- and effectively devoid of records as well. I briefed her on the next steps and took my leave, thankful that it would not be my job to shred those records.

I wonder if anyone ever did that job.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

AIR: Where Records Goest, There Goest I

Back when I was but a wee records manager (ok, ok, no one will ever believe that I was a "wee" anything), I had the very distinct privilege of one of the best forms of records management training on the job on the planet -- surveys of local government records.

Back then (and probably still today), Illinois had more units of local government than the next two states combined. Cook County (the County which is dominated by Chicago) has over 120 municipalities, besides Chicago! Well, back then, Cook County was my turf. I was the sole field Representative for the Local Records Commission of Cook County, via the Illinois State Archives. I never wanted for work. I churned monthly inventory statistics like there was no tomorrow. Retention schedules (all by hand and typewriter) flew out of my office. and I got to see how the political sausage is made. I can still drive by a village hall somewhere in the suburbs and picture where the records were and how bad they were.

Two episodes still bring back nightmares. It was summer. And it was hot and humid. The Lake would not be providing any natural air conditioning on that day. I was dressed in my normal "official" garb: Dockers-like pants, dress shirt, and tie. Photo ID hanging from the pocket. Driving the State-owned Chevette. I was nearing the end of a typical suburban inventory a couple suburbs from my home. It was nice to be able to stay off the expressways for a change and get to "work" in 15 minutes or so. The task was the Fire Department. Those were typically pretty simple: incident reports, a few investigation reports, ambulance run records, some training records and maybe a pile of inspection reports. There'd be some odds and ends here and there, but it was usually a couple hours of effort at most.

I arrived promptly at 9am and as I extracted myself from the Chevette, I knew it was going to be one of those blistering hot days. I was glad to have a nice inside job. Poke around some file cabinets in the office, maybe move a couple boxes. I introduced myself to the chief and he turned me over to his clerk. I poked around and scribbled for an hour or so and pretty much had exhausted the files in the office. I asked if they had any other records. The clerk said that every now and then she had one of the firemen go get her a box from "somewhere", she wasn't sure, so she pages one of the guys. In comes a fireman. She tells him that I want to see the old records. He says, "Are you sure?" I tell him, with some bravado, that I'd seen a lot in my work and records didn't scare me. "How about ladders?"

Ladders. Whadya mean ladders? He opens the door to the apparatus floor and beckons. Well, right next to the shiny chrome and red trucks is a roughly 15 foot ladder bolted to the wall -- straight up to an opening in the ceiling. As I stood there, I swear that ladder got longer. A thumb pointed vertically. "There's your old records." Now I will note that that apparatus floor was quite a bit toastier than the office had been. The sun was heading for its Noon position. And I was about to climb up a ladder into an attic. "I don't suppose you have a staircase to get up there?"

The fireman told me that he'd go up first and turn on the light and make sure I didn't put my feet through the ceiling. Up he went. So I climbed. I may have stuck the clipboard into the back of my pants so I had both hands on the ladder. I don't remember. The temperature climbed with me. Before long, I was head and shoulders into the attic.

This was an older building and it had a style of roof known as a barrel-vaulted roof. This makes for a fairly wide span, but very little headroom in the attic. In this case, perhaps five feet at the high point. The safe places to walk were highlighted and I pulled myself out into the attic. It must have been 120 degrees in there. I looked around and saw a small sea of boxes, some old equipment, and not much else. Sweat was pouring off of me both from the climb and the temperature. My tour guide pointed out the stuff that he knew to be records and told me to yell for him if I needed anything. He then disappeared down the ladder.

I suspect that I spent about five minutes looking at the labels on the boxes and trying to find the oldest dates for each record series. I hastily counted boxes and decided that there probably was nothing of any real significance up there and that I had done my due diligence. I carefully found my way back down the ladder and on to an apparatus floor that seemed wonderfully spring-like. I found a water cooler and downed half a gallon (it seemed) of water. My shirt was soaked through and I was a mess.

Now normally at that point in my visit, I would wrap up with a discussion of next steps, walk through the process to review and approve the retention schedule, and make sure they knew how to request destruction of records. I pretty much tossed the Local Records Handbook at them and said that I would be in touch. The air conditioning in that Chevette never felt so good!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

New Features Coming!

Now that I've had some time to work with my blog, I've decided that I need to parse out a couple of new features. Rather than creating a new blog, I'll label the related posts in a particular way.

Adventures in Records Management (AIR) will be a series of stories about working in the trenches of our profession. Many of you have heard these in my presentations, but I thought that I would start to write them down before I forget them.

Above The RIM (ATR) will be posts about the future of the profession and new ways of thinking about, and doing, records management. I've often been accused of being a little bit ahead of some of the curve, so this is where I'll put my musings on things that are new.