Book Review: Managing Electronic Records
As someone with some theoretical knowledge and technical skills getting involved in the practicalities for the first time, I found considerable food for thought in this book. Combining a truly international selection of contributors offering perspectives from Australia, France, South Africa, Canada and the US with backgrounds in records, document and knowledge management as well as archives with case studies from both private and public companies, the book gives a thorough grounding in the subject for 'newbies' as well as placing records management firmly in the sphere of business processes and benefits. The editors even thoughtfully offer a list of the Web sites referred to in the text on the publisher's Web site to save tedious inputting of the URLs.
In the Beginning
John MacDonald starts off by recalling an article he wrote ten years ago considering the future direction and environment for records management and so gives the reader an overview of the main issues at that time and which, all too often, still blight progress now. I found myself very familiar with his scenario of haphazard storage in cluttered C: drives and shares with so many office workers still chafing at the restraints records management seems to impose and often taking the all too human way out of protesting through non-compliance. Laws and standards have been implemented in the last ten years, but compliance is still patchy and many businesses of all kinds have still not woken up to the importance of effective records management and ineffective silos are still plentiful.
In the technological domain, there has been considerable progress made in the past ten years, with user-friendly systems providing seamless records and document management in one package. He also makes the useful point that familiarity with and use of IT in the office environment and at home has increased exponentially and everyone is now dealing with electronic records of some kind. This is leading to more understanding of the issues involved, as people find the principles of good file management also apply to their personal collections of digital photos and mp3 files!
In chapter two, we move on to the use of standards and models with Hans Hofman, who covers everything from why we have standards to why we resist them. There is a bewildering array of these standards, both national and international, some of which are actually conflicting; I found this chapter usefully focused attention on those which really matter. A major theme of this book also starts to emerge here, which is that records management is primarily about business needs - whether the need to comply with legislation and evidence laws, promote efficiency or preserve historical records - it is vital to focus first on the business then select the appropriate standards and other tools for the task.
Next, Kate Cumming considers metadata, which in the records management context, also serves to make the connection between groups and individuals and the documents they produce. She considers in more detail business processes and how these influence the standards of metadata and makes the comment that too many businesses invest in this expensive and specialist technology without first considering what exactly they plan to do with it. She goes on to include a detailed and very useful checklist to use when identifying a potential system for purchase.
David Ryan moves onto digital preservation and looks at the born-digital environment as well as the shift from printing to e-delivery in whatever format the customer prefers - even audio or Braille. Xiaomi An looks at research activity in the field while Marciano and Moore discuss technologies used in some detail, including the applications of perl and regular expressions.
David O. Stephens looks at the legal background and how recent changes in law including Sarbanes-Oxley and Freedom of Information have driven progress in recent years, while Verne Harris offers a very different viewpoint from South Africa where an environment with some excellent laws but a culture of non-compliance and government secrecy has led to massive 'loss of memory' by the state. Thijs Loeven moves onto the human dimension - one very often overlooked in these technology-intensive projects - and discusses the competencies required by staff in setting up and managing the systems and providing leadership for these large projects. Again, useful tables and examples are provided which make interesting reading and are certainly applicable beyond the records/document management field.
Pierre Fuzeau contributes two interesting case studies from France - one from the private sector and one from the public. These highlight the importance of not underestimating or being put off by staff resistance but concentrating on the message and the overall aim. In the case of one business, there was a 75% reduction in errors caused through duplication and outdated documents which helped increase user confidence and buy-in substantially although constant vigilance was still required to prevent staff slipping back into their former idiosyncratic ways. These were very valuable insights as encouraging and getting compliance from staff is always the highest mountain to climb.
Judith Ellis, contributing a case study on the Australian public sector, includes a long and helpful checklist for system selection. The editors close the book with a counterpoint to the opening chapter in which they focus on the long view, the importance of considering the organisation holistically and making sure the tools fit the task.
This book has many strengths: the authors and editors are all experts in their fields and write well, the editors themselves have done an excellent job in organising and shaping the content so the text as a whole moves smoothly through the chapters, each considering a different aspect of the field while building on the groundwork already laid by the preceding chapters, rather than falling into the trap of appearing a disparate set of essays. My own institution is in the early stages of considering these issues and I shall certainly be making use of many of the ideas and lists in this book, which truly offers something for everyone, whatever their specific area of responsibility in the field.