Magazine article Records Management Quarterly

What's in a Name?

Magazine article Records Management Quarterly

What's in a Name?

Article excerpt

With the Protestant Reformation and spread of literacy to the secular segments of society, the clergy's power greatly diminished. In the late eighteenth century, the generally anti-clerical democratic revolutions and very secular industrial revolution further degraded the social status of the clergy. The job of clerk was no longer synonymous with the clergy, but it shared in the debasement of the clergy's status. In the new companies arising within industrial economies, clerks became the non-professional, underpaid, often despised "office help," memorialized in Charles Dickens' depiction of Bob Cratchet in A Christmas Carol.

In terms of function, records managers are the direct heirs of the clerks of the past. It is understandable that they should wish to distance themselves from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century images of this occupation. One way of doing this is to stress their credentials as "professionals," even going so far as to differentiate records management "professionals" from the records clerks who work for them. This distinction has some validity. Less valid have been the records managers' attempts to improve their status by inflating the words they use to describe themselves and their work. This tendency was already somewhat in fashion among the archivists. Thus, instead of talking about "where the records came from," archivists discuss their "provenance," and instead of discussing what a record can tell us about the people who created it, records managers speak of its "evidentiary value."


The penchant for pretentious verbiage continues in current records management terminology. Consider the tendency to explain that one is "deeply involved in litigation support," rather than simply "busy finding records for lawyers." Think about how a query's "lack of specificity" is criticized, rather than simply stating it is "too broad." However, the best example of the records manager's linguistic quest to disassociate himself from his clerical origins involves his title. The "manager" part of the title was appropriate as long as one was thinking of "manage" in the sense of "handling" and "taking care of" records. It was in this sense that the term was used in most writings on records management, even as late as 1969 in William Benedon's classic text, Records Management. However, it was easy to intimate gradually - without explicitly stating - that the "manager" one was speaking about was the one that the books on "management" were describing as someone who "gets work done through others" - i.e., a manager of people, budgets, and resources. Consequently, a review of the next classic text on records management, Maedke, Robek and Brown's Records and Information Management, in 1974, shows that it contains a long discussion on "managerial" theory. The term records manager has come to denote one who "manages" (in the business-school sense) other people who "manage" (in the "take care of" sense) records.

When the records manager became a manger of people, not just paper, it was not possible to refer to those he supervised as records managers-even though they did manage records in the same sense that had originally earned him the title. Therefore, some of them became "records analysts." While this is a very appropriate description of much of what records managers had been doing all along, a problem arises in that the analytical aspects of records management are still usually reserved for the supervisor (manager) while those with the analyst title usually assume the filing, micro filming, and photocopying duties.

Another favorite title is "records coordinator." While somewhat nebulous, it is appropriate for the person who interfaces with other departments, designing, negotiating, and enforcing the interdepartmental records retention schedule. Once again, however, it is more usual that the records managers, rather than the records coordinators who work for them, are responsible for these duties.

As if to admit the problems with the titles "analyst" and "coordinator," many offices have now adopted "records technician" and "records specialist" instead. Unfortunately, reality intervenes to muddy the waters. The person who is given the technician title rarely has more than a few hours' technical training in records management rather than being one who is "expert in a technique" as the designation would imply. Likewise, the specialist is usually a records management clerk who has been trained in only one aspect of records management - his "specialty" - rather than an individual who first became a "generalist" and then specialized in some sub-field of endeavor. What both the technician and specialist appellations reflect most accurately is the records management professionals' desire to associate themselves with something more "professional" or more "technical," as opposed to something "clerical."


While the desire to improve their status above that of clerk has led records managers slyly to alter the original meaning of the "management" part of their title, the same motive has encouraged them to change the "records" part into something they deem more dignified - like "information" or "knowledge." It is hard to understand exactly why they seem so intent on disassociating themselves from "records," the area in which they are most qualified and most interested. One explanation might be that they assume that the "information" is the intellectual content, while "records" are merely the uninteresting containers in which the content is stored. This explanation would make sense, but it does not seem to be what they usually have in mind. For when records managers speak of information, they usually mean the data stored in - or communicated between - computers. This information is even less related to intellectual content than paper records.

Actually records managers try to distance themselves from the term records because they associate records with paper and paper with clerks and clerks with low status. There is not a great deal of logic in this associative chain. By definition, records are units of information that people have deemed worthwhile enough to be saved for future use and for communication to others. On the other hand, information not found in records is usually of little lasting significance - e.g., it is raining; the sky is blue; or my sock has a hole in the heel. Ironically, while records managers try to associate themselves with the term information, the information technology community has become infatuated with the term record, which it uses to describe the basic unit of information in any electronic database. Moreover, the marketers of information technology have gone to great lengths to associate the electronic realm with paper. Consider the icon of a paperclip, which means to attach a file; an arrow pointing to an empty folder, meaning to save an electronic document as a file; or a sharpened pencil, which symbolizes the editing function.


In their attempt to escape from their close association with paper records, records managers have embraced several alternatives that played down the word records and emphasized the term information. The first - and most ludicrous - of these was Information Resources Management (IRM). Dreamt up by a federal government commission in the mid-1970s, IRM purpoted to be a new philosophy - that information was a resource. Although absurd on its face, the philosophy had many adherents - the US federal government, for one, which had let its interest in recordkeeping wither, was facing problems as a result, and needed to do something to at least pretend it was dealing with the situation, and the office equipment manufacturing and vending community, for another, which has always been quick to adopt any buzzword if it would help sales.

The IRM era lasted about two decades. During that time trillions of dollars were spent on word processors, copiers, computers, faxes, etc., all of which were touted as being absolutely necessary for "managing information." Of course, since it was only the equipment that was being managed (and not very well) and not the information itself, recordkeeping did not improve - and neither did the records manager's lot. In fact, within some arenas records management - as a function and as a profession - actually deteriorated.

A quick inversion of the letters, and Information Resources Management became Records and Information Management (RIM). RIM, being blatantly redundant, is not a very logical title. After all, the content of all records is information. If we manage records, we have to manage the information that they contain. However, if the acronym is trying to reflect the idea of managing the information contained in records, as well as "non-record" information, it is questionable whether it should be applied to records managers. Are records managers really concerned with managing "all" information - even that found in material that never qualifies as a record? If so, then what is to separate records managers from librarians?

Perhaps nothing. For the latest nonsensical identifier to be suggested for records managers is Integrated Information Professional. Integrated with what, you may ask? Why with other information management professionals! Although still in its infancy, this concept is based on the vision of archivists, librarians, records managers and information technology types coming together to work in harmony. No more parochial viewpoints. No more fighting over turf. Just integrated information professionals laboring for the common good. At some ethereal level this makes sense. After all, wouldn't it be better to focus the collective energies of the various information handling sub-professions in one direction rather than to waste it arguing with each other over who has what percentage of the information pie? While the answer is a resounding "yes," once one comes out of the ether, one realizes that it is probably premature to have IIP printed on one's business card. The integration of information professionals is about as likely to happen as world peace.


In case IRM, RIM, and IIP aren't enough to deal with, records managers are now traveling farther down the road to rhetorical absurdity by jumping on the "knowledge management" bandwagon. From the sages who babble to each other over the Internet we learn that "the writing is on the wall as far as traditional records management based on archival and retention principles, so why not look to the future?" And what is that future? One in which "the opportunities [lie in] adopting a knowledge management perspective . . . a holistic way of viewing the . . . most important elements of an organization, its people and its information." It is difficult to respond to such drivel except to suggest that:

* The "writing on the wall" is simply graffiti put there by vandals.

* Anytime the talk shifts to how important "people" are in an organization, the most likely scenario for that organization's "future" is a reduction in force.

In so far as knowledge management means anything beyond the principles developed over the past several thousand years by librarians and educators, it implies a recognition that identifying the source of critical information in an organization is important to that organization's survival and success. Of course, it is no coincidence that most proponents of knowledge management also have some sort of software to sell that promises to keep track of where these sources of significant information are. (Didn't we just go through this with IRM?)

Although we hate to prick a hole in this exciting new sales balloon, it should be pointed out that records management has already achieved this variety of knowledge management. It is records management that makes certain that an organization's significant, critical information is captured in records and that these records are indexed and maintained for as long as they are valuable. The primary instrument affecting this task is the records retention schedule. One of the most important aspects of the records retention schedule is the identification of the "office of record." This identification not only ensures that the original record will be maintained for the required period of time, but it also tells everyone in the organization exactly where to find any particular kind of information.

Of course, some might argue that the records retention schedule only identifies records and that it does not adequately indicate which information is contained in a particular record series. This may be true, and, if it is, the situation is easily remedied. All that is required is to modify and improve the schedules so that they capable of providing the additional information. Indeed, there may already be records managers out there who have started doing this.


The records managers' despondency at being equated to clerks is understandable. After all, they are continually reminded how important the management of records is to their organizations and it is difficult to reconcile an important mission with a lowly status. All around them are others who receive much more respect, not to mention much higher pay, for work that is no more respectable and no more valuable. Since logic and facts do not justify the distribution of respect and power, it is conceivable that records managers might think it is the "words" that confer the power - words like knowledge, and information, and resources. And so, in an attempt to rectify the incongruity, many of those in the profession have started using grandiloquent words to describe themselves and what they do. In so doing, they only make themselves look foolish. One is reminded of the superstitions of primitive peoples who pronounce certain words in order to evoke magical powers.

Maybe records managers need to rethink the issue. Maybe, rather than playing word games, records managers should adjust their way of evaluating the worth of different professions - and be proud of what they are. Records management is not obsolete. The principles of the discipline are built on a rock-solid foundation. If the practitioners of the discipline want to be seen and treated as professionals, perhaps they should start approaching their problems as professionals would - with logic and sound reasoning - rather than with pontificaton and pretense.

Attempting to invent an entire new discipline is counter-productive. With the world changing as rapidly as it is, the effort will hardly have gotten started before it will have to be restarted to accommodate yet another change. If there are problems that need to be remedied, then those who hold themselves out to be leaders should try to remedy them rather than to engage in a charade that ignores their existence. Records management professionals need only to emulate medical professionals in that regard. When a new disease is discovered, the medical community seeks to cure it. It does not proclaim the replacement of medicine with a new profession that will seek a cure.

AUTHOR: Ira A. Penn, CRM, CSP, is the Editor of the Records Management Quarterly, a professional journal published by ARMA International. He retired from the U.S. federal government in 1997 after 32 years in records and information management. In 1990 he was presented the Emmett Leahy Award for his contributions and outstanding accomplishments in the information and records management field.

Active in ARMA International at the Association level, Mr. Penn was the recipient of the coveted Award of Merit in 1985 and received the designation of Association Fellow in 1990. He was also active in the Institute of Certified Records Managers, served for eight years on its Board of Regents, and received the Institute's Award of Merit in 1992.

Mr. Penn is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. An accomplished writer, he won the prestigious ARMA Britt Literary Award in 1979 and is one of the principal authors of the Records Management Handbook, an international text published in London, England. A popular speaker, Mr. Penn is in demand for his thought-provoking, controversial, and down-to-earth presentations.

AUTHOR: Bob Sanders received his B.A. from Pepperdine University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Tulane University. He served at Pepperdine as Associate Professor of History, Director of Records and Registration, Registrar, and Archivist. He has been with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority since 1987 as Manager of Records and Mail. He has been active in ARMA, serving on the Greater Los Angeles Chapter's board from 1986 until 1994. He was president of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of ARMA International in 1992-93. He has been a contributing editor for the Records Management Quarterly since 1992.

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