The subject of what constitutes a record was the topic of discussion during last week’s seminar for the Concepts and Contexts module at uni. It was such a thought-provoking theme that it warrants its own blog post.
We discussed as a group what we thought made a record, and we were all asked to bring an example for each side of the argument. Items that the group presented as records included a letter of student statement, a printed and bound undergraduate dissertation, and various formal forms of identification. For the non-records, the group’s examples included a CD album with an enclosed letter, a post-it note, and an informal e-mail to a colleague in invitation to a party. Our lecturer was able to make the point that the items that we had thought not to constitute a record could in fact be seen as records. The context of the items, the status of the person to whom the items belonged, and the potential for additional information, background and further context could all contribute to the recordness of the item.
There are many different definitions of what constitutes a record, and perhaps a good place to start is ISO 15489-1:2016, the International Standard for Records Management. The standard defines a record as ‘information created, received and maintained as evidence…and as an asset by an organization or person, in pursuit of legal obligations or in the transaction…of business’. The International Council on Archives (ICA) provides another definition of ‘recorded information produced or received in the initiation, conduct or completion of an institutional or individual activity and that comprises content, context and structure sufficient to provide evidence of the activity’. Neither of these definitions are wrong, but they do become about the criteria of usability. Let’s go back to T. R. Schellenberg, the American archivist and archival theorist born at the turn of the twentieth century.
In his 1956 work ‘Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques’, Schellenberg defines records as ‘all books, papers, maps, photographs, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by any public or private institution in pursuance of its legal obligations or in connection with the transaction of its proper business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that institution for its legitimate successor as evidence of its functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities or because of the informational value of the data contained therein’. A much more wordy definition than that of the ICA or ISO 15489-1:2016. Schellenberg declares that a record can be an item ‘regardless of physical form or characteristics’, thereby including items such as maps and photographs. Schellenberg appears to be more accepting and open to interpretation.
One of the articles we were asked read in preparation for the seminar was Geoffrey Yeo’s ‘Concepts of Record (1): Evidence, Information and Persistent Representations’. Yeo states that ‘no term can be defined without using other terms that must also be defined’. Yeo also believes that the concept of evidence is at the heart of the definition of a record, but wants us to think of records more as representations instead of ‘evidence’ or ‘information’. The concept of evidence is one we have come across before in the definitions of the ICA and ISO 15489-1:2016. Records do provide evidence of an event, a process, an object, or a particular thing. It is this evidential information that researchers and scholars turn to in order to analyse and explore the particular ‘thing’ that they working on.
According to the ICA there are three properties inherent in all records: content, context, and structure. Records must hold information or data, there must be a logic in the way the information and metadata is laid out, and it must be possible to ascertain how it relates to other records and the organisation which created it. By having these properties, records should then have authenticity, completeness, reliability, and the content of the record should not be altered. Jisc states that all of the above properties and qualities can apply regardless of the record’s format, whether it be a sheet of paper, email, photograph or database entry. In our digital age there are hundreds of thousands of intangible records in the form of emails, digital photographs, spreadsheets and text documents. A record does not simply mean a physical, tangible thing.
The creation of static definitions can, however, be problematic. Caroline Williams argues that the creation of definitions lends itself towards confinement to a certain degree. ‘What defines confines’. Precise definitions of what constitutes a record can be negative, as creating static identities or boundaries prevents our understanding from transcending beyond categories. Williams argues for fuzziness, which can allow us look past a precise definition, and think more abstractly. A precise definition could mean the inadmission of a record if it does not meet the prescribed criteria, but a fuzzy definition allows for creative and conceptual linkages.
Whilst it can be good for archivists and organisations to have an idea of what constitutes a record, people are likely to give different responses when asked. It all comes down to context, and it pays to keep an open mind.
So, what do you think a makes a record?