Guest post by Geoffrey Yeo, author of Records, Information and Data: Exploring the role of record-keeping in an information culture
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.
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.
Facet Publishing announce the release of Records, Information and Data: Exploring the role of record-keeping in an information culture by Geoffrey Yeo.
In a society that increasingly emphasizes digital information and data, questions arise about the place of longer-established concepts such as records and archives. Records, Information and Data sets out to investigate the relationships between information (or data) and records, and, to examine the place of record-making and record-keeping in today’s information culture.
Eric Ketelaar, Professor Emeritus of Archivistics at the University of Amsterdam said, “Yeo’s book argues that the prevalent discourse which equates records simply with information or data is wrong. His innovative analysis of the performativity of records results in a fascinating new conceptual and practical understanding of the roles of records and archives in social action. Professionals in handling records, information and data, as well as users of records and archives and everyone interested in ‘the archive’, will gain from this perceptive and highly readable book a new comprehension of past, present and future information cultures.”
The book starts with an exploration of the concepts of records and archives; setting today’s record-keeping and archival practices in their historical context whilst examining changing perceptions of how these concepts are understood. It asks whether and how far understandings derived from the fields of information management and data science/administration can enhance our knowledge of how records function. Finally, it argues that concepts of information and data cannot provide a fully adequate basis for reflective professional thinking about records and that record-keeping practices still have distinct and important roles to play in contemporary society.
Professor Emeritus at The University of British Columbia, Terry Eastwood praised “Yeo’s searching examination” and said that “everyone in the records field or aspiring to enter it should read this book and ponder its many cogent arguments.”
Geoffrey Yeo is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Information Studies at University College London, UK. His previous work for Facet includes Managing records: a handbook of principles and practice (with Elizabeth Shepherd, 2003), and Managing records in global financial markets (with Lynn Coleman, Victoria Lemieux and Rod Stone, 2011).
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Picture a scene: in a county record office somewhere in England, a young archivist is looking through the morning post. Among the usual enquiry letters and payments for copies of documents is a mysterious padded envelope. Opening it reveals five floppy disks of various sizes, accompanied by a brief covering letter from the office manager of a long-established local business, explaining that the contents had been discovered during a recent office refurbishment; since the record office has previously acquired the historic paper records of the company, perhaps these would also be of interest? The disks themselves bear only terse labels, such as ‘Minutes, 1988-90’ or ‘customers.dbf’. Some, the archivist recognizes as being 3.5” disks, while the larger ones seem vaguely familiar from a digital preservation seminar she attended during her training. On one point she is certain: the office PCs are not capable of reading any of them. How can she discover what is actually on the disks, and whether they contain important business records or junk? And even if they do prove of archival interest, what should the record office actually do with them?
Meanwhile, a university librarian in the mid-west USA attends a faculty meeting to discuss the burgeoning institutional repository. Introduced a few years ago to store PDF copies of academic preprints and postprints, there is increasing demand from staff to store other kinds of content in a much wider range of formats, from original research data, to student dissertations and theses, teaching materials and course notes, and to make that content available for reuse by others in novel ways. How, the librarian ponders, does the repository need to be adapted to meet these new requirements, and what must the library do to ensure the long-term preservation of such a diverse digital collection?
Finally, in East Africa, a national archivist has just finished reading a report from a consultant commissioned to advise on requirements for preserving electronic records. The latest in a series of projects to develop records management within government, he knows that this work is crucial to promoting transparency, empowering citizens by providing them with access to reliable information, reducing corruption and improving governance through the use of new technologies. The national archives has achieved much in recent years, putting in place strong records management processes and guidance. But how to develop the digital preservation systems necessary to achieve the report’s ambitious recommendations, with limited budgets and staff skills, and an unreliable IT infrastructure?
Practical Digital Preservation is intended to help these people, and the countless other information managers and curators around the world who are wrestling with the challenges of preserving digital data, to answer these questions. If the book had been written only a few years ago, it would first have to explain the need for digital preservation at length, illustrated no doubt with celebrated examples of data loss such as the BBC Domesday disks, or NASA’s Viking probe.
Today, most information management professionals are all too aware of the fact that, without active intervention, digital information is subject to rapid and catastrophic loss – the warnings of an impending ‘Digital Dark Ages’ have served their purpose. Hopefully, they are equally alive to the enormous benefits of digital preservation, in unlocking the current and long-term value of that information. Instead, their principal concern now is how to respond in a practical way to these challenges. There is a sense that awareness of the solutions has not kept pace with appreciation of the potential and the problems.
Such solutions as are widely known are generally seen as being the preserve of major institutions – the national libraries and archives – with multi-million pound budgets and large numbers of staff at their disposal. Even if reality often doesn’t match this perception – many national memory institutions are tackling digital preservation on a comparative shoestring – there is no doubt that such organizations have been at the vanguard of developments in the field.
The challenges can sometimes appear overpowering. The extraordinary growth in the creation of digital information is often described using rather frightening or negative analogies, such as the ‘digital deluge’ or ‘data tsunami’. These certainly reflect the common anxieties that information curators and consumers have about their abilities to manage these gargantuan volumes of data, and to find and understand the information they need within. These concerns are compounded by a similarly overwhelming wave of information generated by the digital preservation community: no one with any exposure to the field can have escaped a certain sense of despair at ever keeping up to date with the constant stream of reports, conferences, blogs, wikis, projects and tweets.
Practical Digital Preservation demonstrates that, in reality, it is not only possible but eminently realistic for organizations of all sizes to put digital preservation into practice, even with very limited resources and existing knowledge. The book demonstrates this through a combination of practical guidance, and case studies which reinforce that guidance, illustrating how it has already been successfully applied in the real world.
Find out more
About the author
Adrian Brown is the Director of the Parliamentary Archives and has lectured and published widely on all aspects of digital preservation. He was previously Head of Digital Preservation at the National Archives where his team won the International Digital Preservation Award in 2007.
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Facet Publishing have announced the release of Engaging with Records and Archives: Histories and theories
Engaging with Records and Archives showcases the myriad ways in which archival ideas and practices are being engaged and developed and offers a selection of original, insightful and imaginative papers by emerging and internationally renowned scholars, taken from the Seventh International Conference on the History of Records and Archives (I-CHORA 7).
The book, edited by Fiorella Foscarini, Heather MacNeil, Bonnie Mak and Gillian Oliver, reveals the richness of archival thinking through compelling examples from a wide variety of views of records, archives and archival functions, spanning diverse regions, communities, disciplinary perspectives and time that will captivate the reader. Examples include the origins of contemporary grassroots archival activism in Poland, the role of women archivists in early 20th century England, the management of records in the Dutch East Indies in the 19th century, the relationship between Western and Indigenous cultures in North America and other modern archival conundrums.
The editors said, “Today, more than ever before, everyone, not only archives specialists, would benefit from a deeper and better informed engagement with archival objects and practices as they become increasingly engrained in our daily lives, from the pervasiveness of archival materials on the web, to the use of archive-based knowledge in all sciences, to the uncertainty about the preservation of our digital memories that we may all ex
perience sooner or later. The 11 essays selected for inclusion in this book explore different ways of historicizing and theorizing record making, recordkeeping and archiving pr
actices from a range of disciplinary perspectives and through the eyes of creators, custodians and users.”
Fiorella Foscarini PhD is an associate professor in the Faculty of
Information at the University of Toronto. She is Co-editor in Chief of the Records Management Journal and co-author of Records Management and Information Culture (Facet 2014)
Heather MacNeil PhD is a professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto where she teaches courses in the areas of archival theory and practice and the history of record keeping.
Bonnie Mak PhD is an associate professor at the University of Illinois, jointly appointed in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and the Program in Medieval Studies. She teaches courses in the history and future of the book, reading practices, and knowledge production.
Gillian Oliver PhD is an associate professor at Victoria Univeristy of Wellington. She is the co-author of Records Management and Information Culture (Facet 2014) and Digital Curation, 2nd edition (Facet 2016) and is Co-editor in Chief of the journal Archival Science.
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The No-nonsense Guide to Archives and Recordkeeping is ideal for professionals involved in the management of archives and records, especially if they are just starting out or without formal training.
The book covers all aspects of recordkeeping and archives management. It follows the records’ journey from creation, through the application of classification and access techniques, evaluation for business, legal and historical value and finally to destruction or preservation and access in the archive.
Based on the internationally renowned training days run by the author and her business partner, the book deals with records and archives in all formats. It utilizes checklists, practical exercises, sample documentation, case studies and helpful diagrams to ensure a very accessible and pragmatic approach, allowing anyone to get to grips with the basics quickly.
The book is divided into four main work areas:
- current records: including creation, filing, classification and security
- records management: including aims, risks, planning, preparation and delivery
- archives management: including collecting policies, intellectual property rights, appraisal, digitization and outreach
- archival preservation: including policy, disaster prevention and repositories.
Author Margaret Crockett said, “managing records and archives is really interesting and rewarding but it is also really important: if we can’t tame our paper and digital mountains into manageable documentation which tells the story of our lives, our organisations and our societies we cannot prove the things we need to prove and lose our memory of the past. My book aims to set out clearly all you need to know to understand the basic principles and concepts which underpin this often underestimated but crucial activity”.
More information: http://www.facetpublishing.co.uk/title.php?id=048552#.VlRCwXbhDcs
Sample chapter: http://www.booksonix.co.uk/facetpublishing/9781856048552.pdf
Is Digital Different? focuses on the opportunities and challenges afforded by this new environment that is transforming the information landscape in ways that were scarcely imaginable a decade ago. The very existence of the traditional library and archive is being challenged as more resources become available online and computers and supporting networks become increasingly powerful.
The book draws on examples of the impact of other new and emerging technologies on the information sciences in the past and emphasises that information systems have always been shaped by available technologies that have transformed the creation, capture, preservation and discovery of content. It is edited by Michael Moss, Professor of Archiva
l Science at the University of Northumbria and Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, Executive Director of the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity at the University of Washington,
Key topics covered include:
- Search in the digital environment
- RDF and the semantic web
- Crowd sourcing and engagement between institutions and individuals
- Development of information management systems
- Security: managing online risk
- Long term curation and preservation
- Rights and the Commons
- Finding archived records in the digital age.
Is Digital Different? illustrates the ways in which the digital environment has the potential to transform scholarship and break down barriers between the academy and the wider community, and draws out both the inherent challenges and the opportunities for information professionals globally.
This book will be of particular to students, particularly those on information studies programs, and academics, researchers and archivists globally.
Is Digital Different?; September 2015; paperback; 224pp; 9781856048545; £49.95; is published by Facet Publishing and is available from Bookpoint Ltd | Tel: +44 (0)1235 827702 | Fax: +44 (0)1235 827703 | Email: email@example.com | Web: www.facetpublishing.co.uk. | Mailing Address: Mail Order Dept, 39 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4TD The US edition is available in North America through ALA Editions.
What is copyright? Who owns it and for how long? What rights does it confer, and what are the limitations and exceptions?
Copyright for Archivists and Records Managers uniquely outlines copyright law in the UK with special reference to materials relevant to archive and records collections such as maps, legal records, records of local authorities, records of churches and faiths, most notably unpublished works. It also offers advice on rights in the electronic environment and the problems associated with rights clearance; and covers related areas such as moral rights and rights in databases.
The fifth edition of this respected work has been extensively revised and updated to include:
- a description of the major changes to copyright exceptions and limitations for libraries and archives, including changes to library and archive copying for users and the declaration, changes to preservation copying and a new exception permitting on-site access to digital material
- a major revision of the sections on copyright exceptions, including descriptions of the extension of preservation copying to museums, orphan works schemes, education, parody, text and data mining, quotation and private copying
- information about dealing with copyright, including acknowledgements and liability,a new small claims procedure in the courts of England and Wales, and which courts have jurisdiction over an infringement on the internet
- consideration of the many copyright cases that have come before the courts that have provided help with the interpretation of many aspects of the legislation; including the meaning of ‘transient and incidental’, ‘scientific research’, ‘parody’ and ‘originality’; whether hyperlinking infringes copyright; and the relationship between the rights of a copyright owner and freedom of speech.
Tim Padfield said, “I am sorry that archivists and records managers keep having to buy new editions of this book, but a book on the law is of no use if it is out of date. In this case the law has changed very significantly since the previous edition, particularly for those working with archives and records and in libraries, educational establishments and museums. I hope it will continue to be useful”.