Why do records managers – and archivists – like to talk so much about information?

Guest post by Geoffrey Yeo, author of Records, Information and Data: Exploring the role of record-keeping in an information culture

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If you look at older books about record-keeping (Hilary Jenkinson’s famous 1922 Manual of Archive Administration, for example), you may notice that information is hardly mentioned at all. Even in the 1970s, when I was among a bunch of students learning about archives and records management, the tutors who instructed us rarely said anything that linked records with information.

But in today’s discussions of record-keeping we hear about information all the time. Some records professionals say that records – and archives – contain information. Some say that records are a kind of information: a kind that needs to be managed in a special way. Others say that ‘information objects’ become records when someone selects them for preservation or captures them in a record-keeping system; or that information is a record when it can be used as evidence. And growing numbers of records managers now affirm that distinctions between records and information are of little importance, that they are disappearing, or that no-one cares about them any longer.

Something very interesting is going on. Records professionals are putting forward a great variety of opinions, but they all connect records – in one way or another – to information. It becomes even more interesting when you look at some of the things that philosophers have said about information. John Searle describes information as ‘one of the most confused and ill-defined notions in contemporary intellectual life’. Fred Dretske points out that ‘if you think information is important … you must have some vague idea of what it is. … It is easy enough to find people who think they know what it is, but very hard to find two people who agree.’ If information is such a nebulous and precarious concept, why does it have such a high profile? Why have records professionals given it so much emphasis in recent years?

Of course, the records profession isn’t the only professional group that has chosen to frame its practices in terms of ‘information’. Librarians, data analysts, statisticians, knowledge managers and computer scientists all claim that their work is focused on information and its capture, control or use. As Dretske puts it, ‘a lot of people these days want their product to be (or at least be intimately related to) information. So everybody ends up talking about his or her product as information. … There is a mess in this area and, as a result, a lot of confusion’.

I’ve explored these questions in my new book Records, Information and Data (Facet Publishing, 2018). In the book, I look at when and how concepts of information (and information management) became fashionable among records professionals. I also investigate the question of how records and information are, or might be, related: a question that isn’t as easy to answer as it might seem. I argue that seeing records in terms of information doesn’t give us a full picture of how records operate. Undoubtedly, users of records may view them as informative. But at the moment of their creation, records aren’t just a matter of information; they have distinctive roles in performing social actions. Many kinds of actions – some simple, others more complex – can be performed using records, and defining records as information crucially overlooks their performative aspects. People may expect to gain information from using records, but information and records aren’t identical. Information isn’t what records contain, or what records are; it’s an intangible benefit that records can offer to their users.

Not everyone will agree with my conclusions. Some, I’m sure, will violently disagree. I’d like to know what other people think. And I’d like to know whether reading my book helps them to focus their thoughts on the place of records and record-keeping in today’s society.

About the author

Geoffrey Yeo is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at University College London. He writes about many different aspects of archives and records management. His personal webpage is at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/information-studies/geoffrey-yeo.

 

References

J. Searle, Making the Social World (Oxford University Press, 2010), p.71

F. Dretske, ‘The Metaphysics of Information’, in Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Information, ed. A. Pichler & H. Hrachovec (Ontos, 2008), pp.273-4.

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