Records Management Theory's Dilemma: What Is a Record?

By Finnell, Joshua | Library Philosophy and Practice, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Records Management Theory's Dilemma: What Is a Record?


Finnell, Joshua, Library Philosophy and Practice


Introduction

In the Euthyphro, Socrates encounters Euthyphro outside the courts where both are enroute to trials pertaining to piety. Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for murder, while Socrates is on trial for engaging in impious acts. In the course of their conversation Socrates questions whether prosecuting one's own father is impious, especially after Euthyphro boldly claims his act is not (Plato, 2005, p. 4). This inevitably leads Socrates to ascertain the correct definition of piety, so that he can accurately separate pious acts from non-pious acts. In his dialogue with Euthyphro, Socrates is essentially searching for a universal definition of piety so he may recognize them pious activities where they occur.

A familiar dialogue is taking place in the professional literature of records and information management. Since the early 1990s, the theoretical foundation of a records management theory has been constructed on convergence (Pemberton & Nugent, 1995; Walters, 1995; Zawiyah M Yusof & Robert W Chell, 2002). Michael Buckland speaks to this collaborative approach in pointing out the lack of uniqueness in records management theory when he writes, "The issues and principles of who should have access to records is both a legal issue and a records management issue. The life-cycle concept is common to both archives and records management. Indexing and classification schemes are also concerns of librarianship, museology, database management, and other areas" (Buckland, 1994, p. 349). However, while certain concepts are shared across disciplines, arguably the most foundational definition is the most divergent: a record. Each discipline (Archival Science, Library Science, Computer Science) defines the term record in its own way. Unfortunately, much like Euthyphro, records managers at all levels have difficulty espousing a universal definition of the term, while claiming sole responsibility for the authority, organization, authenticity, and sustainability of records.

In this paper, I wish to explore Euthyphro's definitional responses to Socrates query as a metric for exploring the problematic nature of defining a record. Within each response, I will examine parallels problems faced by records manager theorists in positing a definition. This is purely an intellectual exercise, but one that ultimately wishes to contribute to the development of a records management theory. In the words of Michael Buckland, "One does not get very far trying to define and describe things in their own terms. It is comparison that is the most basic intellectual activity. Comparing the nature of records management with other things is a necessary condition for progress in developing a view--a theory--of records management" (Buckland, 1994, p. 351).

"Piety is doing what I'm doing here today, namely, prosecuting my father for murder"

The first definition that Euthyphro posits is that, "piety is doing what I'm doing here today, namely, prosecuting my father for murder"(Plato, 2005, p. 5). This statement provides an example of piety, but does little in the way of providing a working definition. Socrates denies this first definition because it circles the definition of the piety without providing a definition of the concept. Records are often defined in this way. Records managers in an academic setting might say a transcript is a record. In a corporate setting, a records manager would say that a tax return is a record. While these statements provide the variability of records in different settings, they fail to provide an adequate definition of a record. What differentiates a receipt from a record? Is an email a record? Are electronic records different than physical records? It would be fair to say that receipts and emails are types of records, but this simply begs the question. Definition by example is not a sufficient definition of a record.

"Pious acts are loved by the gods"

In his second definition, Euthyphro appeals to authority in his definition, "pious acts are loved by the gods" (Plato, 2005, p. …

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