Basic concepts and principles of archives and records management

Through the centuries, the following THREE FACTORS have shaped the concepts, principles and techniques which records/archives managers use to carry out their responsibilities:

1. The Inter-relatedness of records

Because records are the documentary by-products of work or life processes, they are, like individual frames of motion picture film, organic bodies of related material which cannot be used in isolation or separation from one another without loss of integrity and meaning. They are unselfconscious in that they are naturally occurring contemporaneous and candid documents, as opposed to individual documents created intentionally for the purpose of 'history'.

2. The central importance of context

Records draw their significance from their context. That is, they are valued or useful only in groups and only in relation to the activities and purposes for which they were created and used. Thus records/archives managers must accurately identify and explain both the context of origin/creation and the context of use/custody and maintain the records in a way that preserves their original character and relationships as 'bounded entities comprising content, structure and context'.

3. The function of records as evidence

As we have seen, records represent or stand for human experiences, transactions, activities or accomplishments. The records designated as the 'official' or 'record copies' of documents have been selected to endure as unique testaments, all other duplicates, whether exact copies and different formats having been destroyed. They provide objective 'proof' that something has happened or been agreed to by consenting parties and as such have an integrity that must be protected and preserved by responsible and continuous custody and properly authenticated if that chain of responsible management is questioned.

Examining original records

Records rescued from past neglect often come to the archives in a disordered mess. Archivists must spend time carefully examining material to identify and restore its original provenance and order before it can be used by researchers.

Essential characteristics of recordness

What distinguishes records from other information entities is summed up in the term 'recordness'- an elusive quality usually represented by the six characteristics described below.

Recordness requires that records are:

1. Complete

A record is considered complete when it is a finished, bounded entity comprising structure, content and context and when it has the following elements: date(time and place of creation, transmission and/or receipt); originating address, an author/compiler, an addressee/recipient, title or subject accompanying its content/message.

2. 'Fixed'

Records are information presented in a static form. The act of recording 'freezes' the relationships among the information elements and embeds them in a structure, which can be replicated or re-constituted. For example: data elements within a dynamic or 'live' database are not records until a transaction incorporates such data elements (content) into a meaningful and re-creatable format (structure) along with essential specific contextual information (context). The resulting record is a 'bounded entity' - a metadata encapsulated object (MEO) which may be retrieved and re-presented for human use in electronic form (screen display) or hard-copy printout (paper or film). Although a record is a 'fixed' object, its role is dynamic, not static. Subsequent records and business activities change its relationships, significance and meaning as time passes.

3. Organic

Records are the natural output of work processed; therefore records are only meaningful as a sequence of transactions. Each record is related to or is a consequence of some preceding document, with the matters documented by the former further explained or dealt with in the latter.

4. Contextual

Records derive their meaning, and therefore their usefulness or value, from their context. Because they are created, organised and used in the conduct of normal business by a particular entity, they reflect the purposes and the activities of that entity over time. Thus, to use/appreciate the records one must understand their function, control system, relationships and pattern of use in the workplace; correspondingly the records comprise the evidence of the policies, activities and transactions of that creating entity.

For this reason, records are managed not as individual items, but in aggregates known as series, which are organic 'flows' of material created and structured by the normal course of work activity.

5. Authoritative/'Official'

Records created as documentation to support ongoing work or business activity have a status as 'official' evidence of those decisions and actions undertaken 'in the normal course of business', whether that 'business' is commerce or art or literature or just living. That is, they embody the full and unchallengeable authority of the author - be it an individual or an organisation and its officers.

6. Unique

Unlike books, journals and other published material, records appropriately maintained in context are always one-of-a-kind. That is, any record or group of records with its sequences and interrelationships is unique, despite the fact that there may be duplicate copies of some or even all individual records held elsewhere. The point is that each copy will have a different relationship to the conduct of business and to those who authorised or participated in it. However, in cases where duplication is extensive, it is usual for recordkeepers to minimise the number of duplicate series of records in their care by designating the most authoritative set as the 'official record' for retention and directing those of lesser importance to be destroyed.

Foundation principles for organising and keeping archives

With these three underlying factors and related characteristics providing the intellectual background, let us now explore the Foundation Principles of modern archives management.

1. The principle of provenance

This fundamental principle of grouping requires that records be organised and maintained according to their transactional origin or source. In short, records originating from one office or individual form a distinct body of material, which is to be kept separate and inviolate. It must not be intermingled with records of other 'parentage'. Records from the same origin came to be known as 'fonds' and the principle as Respect des fonds, reflecting its French popularisation and as provenienzprinzip in German. The thinking behind this principle reasons that for records to serve as evidence, they must be traceable to their source and be shown to reflect their contexts of origin/creation and initial or primary use.

Practically speaking, this principle was adopted to preserve the chain of accountability within the ever-growing number of records documenting similar functions and activities produced by growing bureaucracies. It was important to know who was initially responsible in each transaction and to maintain an authoritative custodial lineage.

Accessing records in an archive

Records must be managed and accessible within an archive so that their provenance, original order, and chain of responsible custody is established and maintained.

2. The principle of original order

The Prussian (later German) archivists of the mid-19th century expanded the influence of the office of origin by developing and establishing the related Principle of Original Order or Registratorprinzip in German. This maxim stipulates that records are to be maintained in records/archives repositories in the same scheme of order and with the same designations they received in the course of the business of their office of origin and primary use. Again, the emphasis was on establishing the authenticity and integrity of the record as evidence of work processes and activities in context.

3. The chain of responsible custody

Completing the trilogy of context and process oriented principles for records/archives management, we come to the Principle of Continuous Custody. Articulated and popularised by the English archivist, Sir Hilary Jenkinson, this principle focuses upon the role of records/archives as evidence and maintains that evidential integrity can only be ensured when we can trace 'an unblemished line of responsible custodians'. By responsible, Jenkinson means committed to the 'physical and moral defence' of the archives. These phrases embody the responsible manager's obligation to ensure both the physical security and the intellectual integrity of the records as evidence. This faultless lineage is, in Jenkinson's view, a reasonable guarantee that the records have been kept without damage, alienation, improper or unauthorised alteration or destruction.

Protection of the essential role of records as evidence is the wellspring from which all concepts, theories, principles, policies and practices of sound recordkeeping arise. Any new approach or technique for managing records must adhere to them or acknowledge their centrality and fully justify any modification or proposed departure from them.