Information knowledge

Each year in March, I attend  Sunshine Week events that mark the importance of open government and access to information.  Throughout the year, I also attend many of the quarterly meetings of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The NARA director of the Office of Government Information Services chairs the advisory committee, which reports to the Archivist of the United States. Its mandate is to “identify procedures and methods for improving compliance” with FOIA.

The FOIA Advisory Committee’s subcommittees include one on records management.  An update by committee member Jason Baron, a former NARA General Counsel official, touched on the value of making Federal records retention schedule available publicly.  These can help FOIA requesters see how a Federal agency or department maintains its official records.

Social Media provides us platforms to discuss and learn about information and knowledge professions. Context matters in understanding processes and even some terms we use.

Appraisal refers to the process of analyzing records to assess their content for retention or disposal.  It can occur under different conditions.  Early in the life of a record, by subordinate employees working for the entity whose activities the records cover.  Or later, after transfer, by different employees working for an archival repository.

Classification refers to national security content. But it may mean categorization in other jobs (records management, human resources). Public record refers to property.  But not all information from public records is releasable immediately. Archivists redact information such as Social Security Numbers and Personally Identifiable Information to protect living people.

We have opportunities to explain jargon but also values and core principles.  Archivists don’t distinguish between users of records:  historians, political scientists, genealogists, journalists, employees of advocacy groups, political “oppo researchers,” or private citizens who state no reason for using materials.  Yet all can affect creation of records as I once wrote:

There’s a spectrum in use of archival records from aspirationally objective scholarship to veiled or clear advocacy to simply partisan “opposition research.” Sometimes researchers use records for knowledge. Sometimes for advocacy. Sometimes as an objective historian does. Sometimes as a demagogue does.

As a historian, I think in terms of researchers such as Luke Nichter, Mary Dudziak, Nate Jones, William Burr.  Or open government advocates such as journalist Alexander Howard (photo credit).  But to understand records creation, it helps to center the person who chooses to memorialize an action (or not).

At the beginning of the records life cycle, the creator of a record may not be thinking about balanced historical narratives or institutional memory. They are more likely to see reports of selective use of records by plaintiffs and defendants in litigation than internal or external historical analyses. Or advocacy press releases that cherry pick recorded words.

Lawyers advising corporate clients to write in “discoverable language” can affect perceptions of risk in creating records. But the electronic discovery for legal purposes often emphasized by information governance professionals is only one part of managing records. I’m grateful the Society of American Archivists recently provided me a platform to explain the value of records managers providing positive incentives for creating and preserving records.

What creators of records read in traditional journalism and on “New Media” websites can affect willingness to memorialize events.  This can be hard to counter because the reasons for and extent of a chill differ among individuals and creating entities.   Circumstances (lunch with retired friends versus a hearing) can affect willingness even to acknowledge what can cause chills in record keeping.

Suzanne Garment pointed in 2015 to changes in the content of government records in recent decades (“They will do business verbally instead of in writing. The public record they create will be sanitized into something incomprehensible that requires a machine designed by Alan Turing to decode.”)  And Jason Grumet in 2014 (‘Most government staff now operate under the principle of ‘don’t write that down’ and avoid raising concerns and challenging questions altogether for fear that they will be publicly revealed to embarrassing effect.”)

The core purpose of Records and Information Management (RIM) is to manage what is recorded.  Whether that results in knowledge, a separate concept from information, or if records accurately reflect what happened, lies outside information governance. But it can affect future users of records released through FOIA or archival processing.

I once asked in an online forum if records managers are preparing users of government records for assessing what they read in terms of knowledge, not information.   And linked to a passage in my Federal historian job classification:

The historian subjects each piece of evidence obtained to critical evaluation in order to establish its relative value. This includes investigation to establish the reliability of the evidence which may involve such matters as identification of the author, consideration of his personality and reliability, his relationship to the event described (was he an eye-witness? a participant? or is he relating an event described to him by others?).

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) standard also explains,

Historians determine what items of evidence may be accepted as historical fact by comparing and weighing the various pieces of evidence. They consider the possibility and probability of events in light of reliable human experience, being always aware of the dynamic nature of such experience. The problems involved relate to the extent of agreement existing between the various pieces of evidence or to the quality and quantity of the evidence.

If several independent pieces of evidence do not all agree the historian may either suspend judgment until additional evidence can be found, or may accept the evidence of the majority (or the exceptional nature of particular evidence) as no more than a qualified probability, or he may reconcile the discrepancies in the evidence.

Here is the OPM standard for the work of the subordinate officials in Federal agencies and departments who handle records management:

Records and Information Management (RIM) work involves the creation, dissemination, research, storage and disposition of Federal records. Records and Information Management (RIM) Specialists formulate policy, perform strategic analysis and planning, conduct program outreach, coordinate training, develop metrics, and ensure that sound information governance and accountability measures are in place. RIM Specialists ensure compliance with Federal laws, regulations, and guidance and advise managers on any issues in this area. Additionally, RIM Specialists are familiar with agency goals, objectives, and priorities, and ensure that the RIM program supports the organization’s mission and needs. Federal Records Management laws and regulations must be followed, interpreted and applied when managing Government records. Federal records are a collection or group of information collected in any format and maintained by an agency.

Agency records and information, regardless of format, are either permanent or temporary. Federal records [include] … “all recorded information regardless of form or characteristics, made or received by a Federal agency under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the United States Government or because of the informational value of data in them.

While a specific OPM job category for RIM is new, employees (often in the Management Analyst personnel series) have performed records management functions for decades.  Last August, I looked at the impact of efforts 15 years ago to turn all creators of records into the secretaries of old (who had the time to absorb records training and in some cases more detachment from the content of documents than those whose drafts they typed):

In January 2009, Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate about “The Urgent Need to Fix Federal Archiving Policies.” This followed a 2003 article in which he looked at destruction of electronic records described to him by departmental historian Eduard Mark, who witnessed change on the ground before many archivists did.

Although some of Kaplan’s phrasing seems hyperbolic, he conveyed at the beginning of the Obama administration some of the challenges in handling electronic records. NARA then was in the care of an Acting Archivist, Adrienne Thomas, Allen Weinstein having resigned as Archivist in December 2008.

So what was going on in January 2009? Chaos overwhelmed traditional control in some settings. Creators and recipients had been relying on electronic records in Federal agencies (and in some corporate and academic settings) since the late 1990s. But rarely managing them according to best practices or in some cases even statutes.

Traditional records management relied on secretaries serving as the point of contact for receiving, sending out, and filing paper documents. . . .Until the 1990s, secretaries filed papers based on a retention schedule-linked file plan created by records management staff who relied on unit records liaisons. With the rollout of LANs and issuance of personal computers to employees, in the 1990s individuals increasingly handled their own correspondence. Some printed it out and gave it to secretaries to file. Others read email messages and attachments, acted on them, and deleted them without realizing many were records.

In some places, the traditional records management chain–(1) records officers, (2) unit records liaisons, and (3) secretaries or clerks–bent or broke. Every employee who handled electronic records became part of the third element once represented by a designated few.

Especially after 2005, there were mitigation efforts throughout the records life cycle (creation to accession and access). In more recent years, NARA modified and improved on the Electronic Records Archive developed during the tenures of John Carlin and Allen Weinstein. (This continues–stay tuned!)

Some elements in academic, corporate, and government record keeping are universal but workplace cultures and stress points can vary greatly.  Gaining insights into the differences and the need for strategic customization takes time and effort and careful appraisal of information sources and online links.

Third party commentaries on records management do not always reflect how I see government operations.  The Fall 2018 issue of InfoGovWorld featured a commentary in which a writer outside the records management or archival professions shared his impressions of record keeping during the administration of President Barack Obama.

A Twitter search for the title of the essay, first published last summer at Real Clear Politics, shows wide circulation by laymen.  They may not have recognized the conflation of Federal Records Act and Presidential Records Act issues in a key section of the commentary about presidential libraries.  Or the reliance on the writer’s interpretation rather than direct quotes from a wide range of experts.

Twitter showed a handful of records managers outside Federal civil service sharing links to the Real Clear Politics commentary.  Given its nature, I didn’t tweet the link.  Instead, I thought about how instead to encourage nonpartisan examinations across administrations that look at cause and effect within a cultural, legal and operational framework.

Graduate level educators in library and information science or history already focus on primary sources which enable students to check regulations and statutes.  A good classroom exercise would be to ask students to write about archives using the evidence standards of two professions that rely on assessment of the content of records–Federal historian and government auditor.  I’ve covered both in recent blog posts.

But also to write about them as a litigant might.  And as the writer of an advocacy group press release.  Or even as a partisan speech writer for a candidate for office.  We see examples of all of these shared online.  There’s no better way to understand how people write about records than to try to walk in their shoes.   And to decide which career path fits you best, what “sings to you,” as RBG taught me.

Social Media gives historians, journalists, Open Government advocates, archivists, and records managers platforms to demonstrate professional values.  Within my field of expertise, I often link to presentations by NARA experts such as those who spoke at the Society of American Archivists conference last August.  And to the content of public programs I help staff at NARA which reflect richly textured insights into governmental operations (executive, legislative, judicial).

Deep thanks to @pobocks “‘Aspirational Nebbishonen’  Dave Mayo‽”  for helping me (without knowing it) write the conclusion to this post as I did.  Including referring to myself as “an expert in my field” because I definitely have my “what the hell do I know, this is just me yapping about my own experiences” days on Twitter!  His thoughtful examinations of ADD/ADHD, of programming issues I’ve never experienced, of the beauty that surrounds us (including in dog and cat friends) inspire me to keep exploring life online even when I have “yikes” moments.

Open learning requires walking around virtually and IRL. Cultural context matters for employees of all ranks, but as I’ve come to appreciate when seeing it done well, especially those at the top whose actions affect others most.  You’re gathering information.  But you’re also looking for knowledge.   As an executive once said in an interview,

. . . . you can’t . . . simply say, “This is the way I want you to work for me.” You really have to have an appropriate organizational foundation for it to happen. You also need a realization that you can’t get to it all overnight. You have to think of where you want to go and what kind of foundation is necessary to get there.

Record keeping can never go back to executives receiving incoming material and giving confidential secretaries “ribbon copies” to mail and “carbon copies” to file with received correspondence. That now is electronic, sometimes perceived as vulnerable to snooping, hacking or leaks.

Oral history interviews can fill in some archival silences.  We can’t go back to 2005, when the human angle required as much RIM attention as technological solutions.  Record keeping changed greatly at the start of the 21st century.  But so, too, online tools we can use to gain knowledge as well as information.  Stay tuned for my next post about challenges and opportunities in times of change!

This entry was posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, Records. Bookmark the permalink.

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