Records Management in the United Kingdom: Part I - Historical Developments

Article excerpt

In this issue of "The World of Records Management," we visit a country that has, perhaps, the "most special" relationship with the United States of any nation in the world--the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland --or the "U.K." as it is briefly referred to. This little slice of the world's geography (it is slightly smaller than the State of Oregon) has had a tremendously important role in shaping the nature of not only this country, but also the civilization of the entire modern world. The United Kingdom is our "Mother Country"--we inherited our language, legal system and most of our other customs and traditions from Britain. Moreover, Britain was the leading world power for about 100 years following its defeat of France at Waterloo in 1815. During this 100 years, the United Kingdom either directly or indirectly influenced the governmental systems and culture of some 80 nations (about a quarter of the world's population) that comprised the British Empire.

But what of records management? Did the British "invent" modern records management and transfer it to its American colonies before we declared our independence from Britain in 1776? To what extent is records management as practiced in Britain today similar to that practiced here? What can we learn from British-style records management that might improve our practice here? These and many other issues will be addressed in this multi-part series of articles on records management in the United Kingdom. In this first column in the series, we will look at the historical development of records management in Britain, with emphasis on its development as a management discipline within the national government.

THE ORIGINS OF RECORDS MANAGEMENT IN BRITAIN

In an earlier column we noted that England has had a system of formally filing or "registering" government documents since at least as early as the 13th century. We will examine the English registry filing systems later, but modern records management in Britain really began in the early 19th century, with the circumstances that led to the establishment of the British national archives.

Like most large national governments of important countries, the ministries of the British government began to generate substantial quantities of records by the late 18th century. In fact, during this period of time, there were some 60 buildings in the greater London area that were dedicated to storing public records. In 1836, a report of the Select Committee of the Record Commission stated:

"The most important business which falls within the province of those entrusted with the management of records is that of their proper custody. The first and most obvious defect in the present system is that records are deposited in different and widely scattered buildings."

The report of the Select Committee led to the enactment, two years later, of the Public Record Office Act, which established the British National Archives. The United Kingdom is, of course, a much older country than the United States, but even so, it is interesting to note that Britain established its national archives almost 100 years before the United States. (The U.S. National Archives was established in 1934.) In both countries, this central records office of the national government played a crucial role in inventing the professional discipline that came to be known as records management and guiding its early development throughout the country.

During its early years, the primary efforts of the Public Record Office were devoted to establishing proper physical custody over the widely scattered old and historically valuable archival records of the British government. Little attention was directed toward improving the management of the active records in the many Registry Offices in government departments throughout the British government. The primary duty of the Public Record Office was to take charge of such records and papers as each office might think proper to transfer, either because they were not required for the current business of the office, or because they could not be conveniently accommodated within the office. …