Records Management Returns to the Departments: A Suggestion for the Next Century

Article excerpt

Records managers have long struggled with the paradox that, while records management is obviously very important to the effectiveness of any organization, it has such a modest status. Not long ago, as this anomaly churned in the subconscious recesses of my mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find in the RMQ nostalgically painted portrayals of highly ranked records managers living in ancient, medieval, and early modern times.(1) I was inspired. Maybe our humble rank in the twentieth century was only an aberration. Perhaps I would arrive at my cubicle on January 2, 2000, to find a new nameplate reading "Bob Sanders, Records Manager and CEO." That image jarred me from my reveries. Something in this picture just did not fit - even beyond my own lack of qualifications to be a CEO. Then I compared it with the historical accounts of high-ranking individuals - sometimes even kings and emperors such as Anam of Uruk before 3000 B.C. and Ephialtes of Athens in 460 B.C. - who apparently took more pride in their recordkeeping responsibilities than anything else. Gradually an answer began to emerge. These individuals had attained their high rank by virtue of their achievement as statesmen and warriors, not because they were records managers. Yet they had assumed or retained records responsibilities. Was it not then likely that the current modest position of records management does not really reflect a sudden debasement of society's view of records, but rather the separation of records management duties from high-ranking individuals?

The emergence of recordkeeping as an autonomous function, separate from the line functions it supports, is a long and complicated story.(2) From our viewpoint as late twentieth century records managers, the most important chapter in the story began with the introduction of the Industrial Revolution's principles of division of labor, systematization, and efficiency engineering in the nineteenth century. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, members of the "scientific management" movement, usually associated with Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), applied these principles to the modern office, with one result being the creation of rationalized records management as a distinct office specialization. From this point, recordkeeping was no longer inextricably linked with the work of the more highly ranked individuals who created and used the records. Indeed, as Michael Pemberton has shown quite perceptively in one of his "Perspectives" columns, this development associated records management with the lower social status of female office workers.(3)

There have been many recipes for records managers to regain their "lost prestige." Luciana Duranti has suggested that they should "acquire consciousness of the importance of their social function."(4) Pemberton has suggested developing the attributes of more highly regarded professions, notably the perception of authority over "a complex and difficult body of knowledge and professional education."(5) Ira Penn has argued that they should emphasize the critical importance to modern business of their theory of the life cycle of records.(6) The purpose of this column is to suggest still another way to elevate the status of records management and simultaneously to facilitate the adoption of its principles by the rest of the organization. The suggestion is to reintegrate clerical records management tasks into the line functional areas from which they have been isolated.


I have no intention of suggesting that the development of twentieth-century records management along a track autonomous from line management areas was a mistake. That would be as wrong-minded as to argue that the division of labor ushered in by the Industrial Revolution was a mistake because society would later begin to reintegrate the functions that industrialization had divided. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there is a time and place for everything. …


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