Tuesday 21 June 2011

Don't hit me, I'm a Records Manager

I'll start with my confession. You see, I'm not nearly a librarian at all. I am in fact, a records manager. Oh, do I work for Sony, or a minor label? No, I manage corporate evidence. No, not in a legal sense, I never make it into a courtroom. I file.

At parties, this is usually the point where my interlocutor's eyes will glaze over and they'll start looking for another canape, another drink, another friend - anything to get them away from me before I start expanding on how interesting records management "really is".

I'm not here to tell you how records management will set the world on fire. I've looked over the other Blogjune posts - wow. They're all about NewStuff(tm) and how we're going to use the NewStuff(tm) to do EVEN MORE NewStuff(tm). Librarians seem to have successfully shucked prim maiden aunt image and are now bright young things doing more with less in a digital era.

Records isn't like that. "New" doesn't really happen in records. What I do now is what I've been doing for the past 8 years - helping people to get into good habits and helping them to stay in good habits. The people change. The places change. The subject matter and archival quality of the information changes. The struggles rarely change.

I help people to wrangle with the tools provided for them to manage records. Sometimes this is as simple as showing them how to save their documents in 2 mouse clicks rather than 3. Sometimes its as complicated as going into a well-established area of the business and convincing everyone (from the temp admin assistant to the manager) that what you've got to offer is going to make their lives easier, not harder. That can be a tough sell. People have their processes worked out. They know they're going the long way around, but at least they know that it gets them there in the end. Why swap what they know for a heap of new processes with new hurdles to be cleared? People know the problems with their system of handling information and they know how to manage those problems - why would they change to my system with its unknowns?

That's sometimes the issue. Its "us" versus "them". I'm often cast as the villain who wants to replace a perfectly awesome system of information management with something less than perfect. I once worked in a small office which had always relied heavily on its information resources. Once upon a time, that meant employing a large number of clerical staff to manually index and file legal transcripts. When I arrived, there had been a half-hearted transition to electronic records management, which didn't include those most important transcripts. A young lawyer challenged me to a retrieve-off, and of course I lost. After 10 minutes on the card files he had found the volume and page of the transcript and hence his vital precedent. I was still searching the broadest keywords and coming up with nothing.

Why? The company had saved 3 clerical salaries by introducing electronic records management, (and hired the young lawyer as a result). But they didn't invest in transferring their existing information assets to the new system. In theory, everything was 'faster now", but in practice we were still reliant on the index cards.

Good records management is all about continuity as well as doing things the very best way that we can. Records managers want continuity with the past. We bring in the existing information assets where we can. We spend hours and dollars on digitisation projects. We hire people to enter accurate metadata so that last century's records are still as retrievable as today's.

As well as continuity with the past, we also strive for continuity across the business. It is vital that we're all working from the same playbook and contributing to a shared resource. The ultimate aim is to develop a "single source of truth" for an organisation's information assets. In reality we're still searching multiple systems - the index cards, the records management system, the financial system, the data forecasting system, and the intranet page. A search is only as fast as its slowest stream, hence spending the dollars on digitisation.

Even contributing to multiple systems is a "win" in records management terms. One of the biggest hurdles I face is convincing people to contribute at all. When information is stuck in private drawers, in private email systems and on private drives, it isn't contributing to the information asset. I've heard all the excuses, from "but its a draft" to "its not a record, its a document" (that's like saying a manuscript doesn't belong in a library because "its not a book, its a novel"). So I'm not just the person who's saying "your work processes aren't working for the organisation at large", I'm also the person who's saying "you don't own the information you produce at work". That is incredibly challenging for a lot of people to hear, however much they've suspected it in the past.

Records management is about bringing lots of different elements together to form a whole picture. It is exciting to see that picture form differently in different places. Sometimes its as easy as importing data from an old system into the records management system. Sometimes its as difficult as wading through volumes and volumes of handwritten data - coding, classifying, digitising and thereby making it instantly available in the same place as work that is happening right now.

Although "new" doesn't really happen in records management, the same struggles bring new results every time. And hey, that's cool, even if I don't work for Sony.

- Meela Davis

Meela is a TRIM Jockey who works for a Large-ish Organisation. She dreams of global records domination... or at least better participation. You can see her personal tweets at @meeladavis.


  1. I was records manager AND librarian at my last place of work - I welcomed the opportunity because I was interested in records and wanted to learn more. I've learned that it's not really my cup of tea - but I think it's the struggles you refer to that really put me off, rather than the job itself. I like the order and the system implicit in records management, I just wasn't very good at selling that to others.

    So, I'll talk to you at a party, have no fear :-)

  2. Thanks for this post. I suspect my future holds a doc/rec management project to manage