In the July/August 2013 issue of Archival Outlook, the article “Make Access Happen: Help NARA Rethink Electronic Recordkeeping” asked members of SAA to help create a vision for a future where the electronic records problems we face now would be solved. This article reports back on the discussions NARA hosted over the last year and the ideas you collectively contributed to this vision. NARA staff who worked on this project enjoyed the many lively conversations, thought-provoking questions, and sense of common purpose that came out of this exercise. What We Did and Why The Managing Government Records Directive (M-12-18) (https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb /memoranda/2012/m-12-18 .pdf) called on NARA to assist the federal government in switching to electronic recordkeeping by developing a twenty-first-century approach to records management. That’s a tall order, so we knew we’d need to call on experts in archives and records management to figure out what that might look like. This visioning effort was specifically linked to the task in the directive to write a report and plan for Automated Electronic Records Management (A3.1). NARA took this as an opportunity to explore not just automation but also broader and more open-ended questions about what the ideal future would look like. After publication of “Make Access Happen,” NARA spent the following year talking with groups that had insights into the future of electronic records management (ERM). We held live discussion sessions at the Best Practices Exchange in Salt Lake City (November 2013) and Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference in Rochester (April 2014). We invited members of SAA’s Electronic Records Section, Records Management Roundtable, and Government Records Section to webinar-based discussions during summer 2014. We also held discussions with members of ARMA International, the Records Management Listserv community, the Federal Electronic Records Management Automation Working Group, and open government/open data advocates. What We Heard We heard from people with quite different visions of what should happen, but there were a number of sentiments that we heard again and again. The conversations were wide-ranging and the ideas didn’t always line up neatly with particular questions. Nevertheless, the core discussion questions we asked provide a way of outlining some of the interesting thoughts of the participants. What is the biggest challenge for electronic records management and what should we do about it? It was widely acknowledged that the volume of electronic records is overwhelming and the variety of formats and types makes it hard to manage the volume. Many said that the reality of electronic records is “messy,” the record versus nonrecord distinction confuses end users so that they don’t know what they need to capture, and end users don’t care enough about electronic records to do a good job capturing and categorizing them. Although a number of people made these points, there was some difference of opinion on what to do about each of these points. Accept or fight the messiness (or both)? Some participants stressed that archivists need to expect ongoing messiness in e-records (i.e. variety, frequent changes, lack of standardization) and develop e-records systems that are forgiving of that messiness. Others stressed establishing and enforcing standard formats, metadata, and communication mechanisms for interoperable systems whenever possible. Although we heard both sides, this may be a false dichotomy. We will probably have to plan for ongoing messiness by developing systems that can cope with a wide range of formats and metadata, while at the same time trying to improve the quality and standardization of records whenever we can. “Records” or “information”? Many participants mentioned that determining what needed to be managed as a record was a significant challenge for good ERM. One solution is to stop stressing the distinction between record and nonrecord, and instead manage all information so that an organization knows everything it has and how long it needs to be kept. This allows an organization to skip the error-prone step of determining what is a record, and may support more automation of the capture process. However, some discussion participants believed that the record/nonrecord distinction is very important. Some participants acknowledged that part of the appeal of defining something as a nonrecord means the records managers don’t have to manage them—the distinction allows a preemptive strike against the volume and complexity of electronic records. Automatic records management or better user training? When we asked how ERM might be automated, some participants said they felt strongly that there are risks in making ERM too automated. For example, if it becomes so invisible to end users that they never have to think about it, they might not value their records and information appropriately. Those participants believe that better records management training for end users is still critical. However, many participants did find the vision of an automated future appealing. They said that ERM is vulnerable as long as it’s an add-on system for users and for IT acquisition and support. It has to be completely integrated to the way people do business or it will never happen consistently. What is the ideal future state? We asked discussion participants to describe a future world where electronic records are managed well. Although we got a range of answers to this question, a fairly consistent picture emerged from the compiled comments. In the ideal future: Good ERM happens automatically because it is built into the way people naturally do their work. The systems know what kind of work you do and records are automatically organized in the right categories. Predictive coding software correctly categorizes newly created content by its subject matter or function. All information created is appropriately managed. All information captured and categorized is immediately accessible for reuse by the records creator and the organization. It is easy to search, discover, retrieve, and reuse information. Capturing records to manage them does not mean taking them away to some safe but inaccessible space; records are managed, safe, and accessible. Once the permanent electronic records come to the archives, powerful search systems allow archivists and users to retrieve needed information. Archivists don’t need to categorize it before it can be found. Archivists focus on using analytical systems to sort through vast quantities of electronic records. In this ideal world good ERM happens with no burden on the record creator, creators have access to their own material, information is kept as long as it needs to be kept, and the archives receive and provide easy access to all the permanently valuable electronic records. Wouldn’t that be great? What steps could we take to move toward that ideal future? Participants mentioned the need for ongoing work on current archival priorities, even in the ideal future: standards for formats, metadata, and interoperable systems. Many participants shared the sense that tools and approaches already exist, but the technology is beyond the reach of most archivists. It’s time consuming to research options and select the best one, expensive to buy the tools, complex to deploy them, and the market is changing all the time. However, that description of the hurdles also points to steps we could take that would help. We should explain our challenges to technologists outside our usual circles. We should establish labs where we could test tools on real records. We should establish shared services where one organization could address these hurdles for many others. To summarize: We should do it together, share solutions, spread the cost, reduce duplicate investments, and focus on simple, flexible solutions that many institutions could use. What is NARA doing with all this input? The ideas from these discussions informed the Electronic Records Management Automation Report/Plan (http://goo.gl/8LTSRt). NARA released the final report and plan in September 2014 and created a website (http://goo.gl/3CDBdj) to provide progress updates on the plan. (You can also follow breaking news about electronic records activities on the Records Express blog: http://blogs.archives.gov /records-express/) However, the discussions you had with us were broader than just automation. This article is part of our ongoing work to digest what we heard from the community and start thinking about what else we— NARA and the whole profession—can do to build the future we want. There is a lot more work to be done. NARA thanks everyone who talked with us last year. We look forward to continuing the conversation as we get closer to the ideal future of electronic recordkeeping.
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