While Records Management is not often highly regarded by people outside the field, however it plays a vital role for organisations in retaining a history of their activities and interactions and, when their actions and decisions have public impact, on the history of a state or nation.
I was honoured to be invited to be the keynote speaker and, despite having my iPad stolen at Melbourne Airport, forcing me to fall back on less well constructed notes, gave a speech about the challenges of records management in the digital age.
Unfortunately as my notes had partially been lost I don't have a full record of my speech, but what I do have is included below.
Ladies, gentlemen and distinguished guests,
It is a great honour to have the opportunity to speak to you tonight on a topic I have become very passionate about – the importance of public records.
I wanted to start by share my earliest workplace experience with record keeping. It was in my first job after university, working for a management consultancy as an analyst on Sydney’s north shore in 1992.
Computers were just coming into offices and my new employer had paid roughly six thousand dollars on a brand-new Apple 2ci for me, with the very latest in word processing and spreadsheet programs – AppleWorks – which many of you have probably never heard of.
My first week was spent climbing on desks to network my new computer to the only other computer in the office, operated by the Office Manager, using Appletalk cables.
The Office Manager’s computer was probably the most valuable electronic device in the office. She used it to transcribe all of the work by the consultants into formal reports and documents.
Every week she diligently backed up her computer to a tape drive. Each month the last four weeks tapes were driven to a bank a few suburbs away and stored in a safety deposit box.
The IP in that box was the value of the company.
One day, a few months after I arrived, I decided to test our backups to ensure that we could retrieve their contents.
The Office Manager and I brought back several tapes from the bank and loaded each in turn into the tape recorder.
For each we tried to restore all the files that had been stored – a process that took around half an hour.
And in each case to her mounting horror, we found the tape was blank.
It turned out that none of the tapes she’d been diligently recording for several years had stored any information, because the consultant who had set up the system had made a mistake in the settings, and no-one had ever tested the tapes before.
The real value and importance of public records really didn’t strike home for me until three years ago at a conference in Perth where a representative of the WA State Records Office told us a story of how public records saved a man’s life.
The story goes something like this – the man’s parents migrated to Australia in the 1940s, bringing with them the little that remained of their lives in Europe. Their names were changed on arrival and they settled in a rural region where they could continue farming as their family had for centuries.
They had a son, who was born at home and baptized at the local church – which burnt down some years later, taking all its records with it.
The son was never issued with a birth certificate, and as he never aspired to university or to travel, neither he nor his parents ever applied for a passport or other official papers.
His parents never bothered to formally become Australian citizens and when setting up bank accounts, mortgages and businesses in the 1970s he was never required to provide a birth certificate or other official documents.
Moving ahead to the 21st century, the man’s parents had died and he was still living on their farm. He found himself in financial straits and applied to the government for support for the first time in his life.
This brought him to the attention of officials for the first time and, when it became clear he had no birth certificate, no passport, no living relatives and no proof that he was Australian, the government set about the process of having him deported to the country from which his parents came.
He didn’t speak the language, had no living family there – even the country had disappeared following the fall of the Soviet Union.
He tried every avenue of appeal, and when they were all exhausted he went to the WA State Records Office to see if they had any evidence that he had been born and lived in Australia for his entire life.
The State Records Office went back through their archives and managed to locate the records of the small rural school he had attended as a child, providing physical documentation of his enrolment when aged 5 years old.
On the basis of that information, the Australian Government ended the deportation action and granted him citizenship.
He was able to access the benefits he was entitled to and to remain living on his farm.
This story made me realise how important public records can be.
They don’t only capture a record of who we were and why decisions were made. They can also have real impacts on peoples ‘lives.
As Record Managers, you’re not just preserving a historic record of what happened, but building a living breathing memory of Australian lives.
And I commend you all for this. Record keeping may sometimes be undervalued, but is never unimportant.
When I entered government I learnt of the record keeping principles that underpin many of the activities of agencies.
Most of my colleagues were diligent record keepers – diligently setting up files for every project and sending folders of printed documents to the warehouses where they were stored.
It was harder in my work – which was largely online – there wasn’t always clear guidance on how online communications should be stored as records.
At one stage we were instructed to print every page of our websites, and reprint pages every time they changed. Over the three months this was the agency’s policy we printed over 20,000 pages - and even then I think we missed many of the changes.
I also recall the early concern and confusion over social media record keeping in the late 2000s.
Should every tweets, posts and update sent or received by an agency be captured and stored, or simply those related to decisions?
What tools were available to capture social media messages, and did the government even have the legal right to take copies of updates submitted by other people?
I still encounter some concerns and lack of clarity over how to manage digital conversations – and fair enough.
For the last hundred years record managers have dealt largely in one record format – paper.
Governments could easily legislate what was and wasn’t a record. Paper could easily be captured, stored and controlled. They could be easily indexed, sought and found.
Paper records could be preserved for hundreds of years - and pending long-term changes to language, they could be easily read by future generations.
However the world of paper records is now disappearing.
Ever since the first Australian government websites went live in 1996 we’ve seen a gradual move from physical to digital records.
Suddenly many documents no longer ever exist as paper records, except if there’s a conscious choice to print them.
Decisions are requested, discussed and resolved via email. Policy documents go through dozens of iterations before anyone thinks to print them. Citizen enquiries arrive via social channels and are resolved in the same way.
And suddenly rather than a single format, paper, record managers have had to contend with hundreds of formats, which can appear and disappear over a short time. From WordStar and Wordpress to Tweets and Facebook posts, Pinterest pins and Disquis comments – record keeping has fragmented.
Each of these formats can individually be captured, as can their context – the format and conversation thread for which each is a part.
However preserving many of them for later access is becoming a challenge.
Right now it is hard to find working versions of many old word processing programs. In the future it is likely to be hard to find tools that can reproduce government records s in a contextual form from messages on many of today’s social media platforms.
Beyond this moving feast of formats, we’ve seen a huge increase and fragmentation in the types of records that governments and the public are generating.
Alongside the white papers and reports, memos and Ministerial correspondence that governments continue to create, information is increasingly conveyed in shorter, faster and more frequent chunks through emails, tweets and SMS.
I can see a future where rebuilding decision-making processes, or responding to Freedom of Information requests, increasingly involves the skills of a jigsaw master.
Historians of the future will have an advantage in that so much information is captured and stored, however the ‘bones’ of the past will increasingly need to be pieced together from powdered dust – thousands or millions of small pieces of information.
The other main challenge for record keepers into the future is the risk of a digital black hole.
Other societies have already found that as information is digitalized more of it is only kept in a transitory way, or is stored in ways difficult to retrieved.
When I worked in government, as soon as I left an agency my email address was deleted and all the emails lost – as were my folders and files on the computers I had been assigned.
Yes much of this was supposed to be backed up – however it required IT skills and time to restore, a cost impost that agencies could not bear in a wholesale way.
Nominally these records were kept, but to be truthful, they could never be easily accessed.
This digital black hole is probably the biggest challenge for record management today. While so many records are kept, they are kept in very different ways on different platforms and can be hard to translate into retainable formats while preserving the context and conversations.
Records management professionals have to understand how to best preserve each type of record, not simply in paper or even digital files, but in formats that will speak to future generations, providing not only the words but the meaning, the context and the broader environment.
They need to do this with an explosion of information and data, while files formats are constantly evolving and within a world of increasing scrutiny.
This is an amazingly large challenge, and an important one for the history of the state, Australia and humanity, and fortunately record managers in Victoria have the experience and expertise to take on and be successful at this challenge.