Re-Defining Electronic Records Management

By Cox, Richard J. | Records Management Quarterly, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Re-Defining Electronic Records Management


Cox, Richard J., Records Management Quarterly


In the January 1996 issue of the Records Management Quarterly, an article by Belden Menkus attempted to characterize what he terms the "re-discovery" of electronic records management.(1) As one who has been working in this area and who has written elsewhere about the "re-discovery" of electronic records management (note my deliberate emphasis on records), I looked forward to reading this particular essay. What I found, however, was a seriously flawed statement about the topic, flawed in interpretation and in the particulars.

It is quite possible that my differences with the essay by Menkus has more to do with my perspective as an archivist/records manager. Throughout my career I have approached the functions of archivists and records managers as unified about the records and recordkeeping systems' life cycle and as a means of administering records for the benefit of both the institutional records creators and for the larger society.(2)

In that spirit, I offer the following as another way of viewing electronic records management, if you will, from the perspective of the archivist. However, I remain convinced that the split - organizational, philosophical, and professional - between archivists and records managers is a serious deterrent to the possibility of achieving any success in the administration of electronic records and recordkeeping systems. It has considerably weakened the basic concepts of records and archives management as any examination of textbooks and the professional literature will reveal.(3)

The disruption between archivists and records managers has also provided a somewhat disunited or confusing front to the technologists at an extremely critical juncture in the transition to electronic age offices and organizations, when the information managers and systems designers are increasingly asking questions about how to manage masses of information or how to determine what information should be maintained for how long. While some technologists (and I am using the term broadly to include anyone who is relying on information technology as a solution to the management of information and records), such as Negroponte and Rheingold, do not consider how the matter of the maintenance of information will be resolved (do they assume everything will be saved?), others, such as Buckland, factor into the design of information systems a preservation function.(4)

THE MENKUS ARGUMENT

The view of this author is quite straightforward. After a quarter of a century of neglect, what he terms a period of "inaction," the matter of the management of electronic records has been re-discovered. This re-discovery has primarily occurred within the government sector, driven by the Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President court case (generally known as the PROFS case) and the rising use of electronic messaging systems. The substance of the re-discovery of the electronic records management issues is a focus on the "completeness of a record's content."

Menkus also argues that while there has been a renewed emphasis on electronic records management, the issues are not new and they were in fact being discussed by federal government records professionals like Everett Alldredge in the 1960s. But Alldredge, and others like him, were ignored because they were not followed "by a comparable leader and innovator." Meanwhile, the technology has changed rapidly and left behind records managers who will now "have to work exceptionally hard to catch up with what has taken place in the world of information handling." Menkus then suggests that the records manager will need to learn something new and to carry new roles within the organization.

The author then sets out to elaborate about electronic records management's nature. Menkus defines both records and management (more about this later). He provides a brief history of records management, providing a fairly traditional view of its origins in the United States National Archives as a means to control the proliferation of records. …

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