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April is Records and Information Management Month, and to celebrate, I’d like to talk about one of the great question marks of the last several decades: electronic records.

Have you ever tried to open an electronic file, only to find that it was corrupted and inaccessible?
Have you ever found a copy of a file in an odd or unexpected place?

If you answered “yes” to either question, you’ve experienced the fundamental dichotomy of recordkeeping in the electronic era. That is, as opposed to the hard copy records that existed up to about the last 50-75 years, records in electronic form are both inherently fragile and easily duplicable. Therefore, they are both equally difficult to preserve and to confidently eradicate.

The use of electronic records has revolutionized the speed and ease with which we can communicate. We can exchange ideas, amalgamate data, and identify trends at speeds that would astonish Ike and JFK. Of course, a good percentage of that massive communicative power is used to exchange funny cat pictures; I suppose that would be somewhat akin to a big portion of all space shuttle launches being chartered solely to light bottle rockets off the exhaust flames.

If you are a Gen-X person like myself, you can remember the days before computers were ubiquitous. My first computer was a Radio Shack TRS-80 that plugged into my TV and didn’t have any sort of disk drive or storage media. I was introduced to something called a “web browser” in my first year of graduate school, and I hardly knew at the time just how much it would affect my eventual career as a records manager.

Records management as a discipline grew out of the early business schools in the late 19th century and developed in the early part of the 20th century, first as part of business curricula and later as an outgrowth of archival practice in the library science fields. But largely the concepts of records management remain the same as they were in Grover Cleveland’s day: arrange records to meet the office’s way of doing business, separate by function, and subclassify by name, number, date, etc. to your heart’s content. You could visually tell when a records organization system became overwhelmed just by virtue of how much, and how chaotically, the paper piled up.

Likewise, when you had problems with your hard copy records, there were usually visual cues: burst pipes, smoke and scorched shelves, broken vinyl albums, cracked clay tablets, what have you. You might have a quick disaster, or a slow degradation, but it was often evident in time to say, “We should copy those records over onto new paper before the old ones fall apart,” or, “Wow, time to go into disaster recovery mode!” With your electronic files, it’s not always as obvious. One day everything can be fine, and the next day, that file just won’t open, or that hard drive has failed, and you don’t know it’s happening until you can’t get to the records you need. So electronic records need to be backed up, checked on, and tended to in a more active fashion. As an old colleague used to say, the hard copies you could trust to be there unless something happened to them, but the electronic copies will go away unless you make something happen with them.

Both of these people have an absolute records mess on their hands. But only one of them can be spotted in passing by.

Truthfully, in many ways this logic still holds true for electronic records, and accordingly, the Virginia Public Records Act defines a public record as anything that documents the transaction of public business, no matter the form or format – hard copy or electronic. So, applying the same logic: arrange to meet the day-to-day needs of the office, separate by function, and subclassify to aid in locating. However, the old visual cues as to the loss of organizational control are gone: your workstation externally looks the same, no matter how empty or full and no matter how well-organized or anarchical its contents. And, ultimately, the benefit of electronic recordkeeping is often in the ability to make connections between one piece of information and another in a way that enhances the utility of each piece. To that end, sometimes a given file has multiple uses depending on its context, and at that point, the old ways of thinking begin to break down. It’s difficult to continue to apply telegraph logic in a TikTok world.

Both Physical and Electronic Records can Degrade.

Accomack County (Va.) Records, Photograph by Author.

Since the early 2000s, the Library of Virginia has promulgated electronic records guidelines to aid state and local agencies in working with their electronic records and recordkeeping systems. We are happy to announce that the latest revision of these was just completed in the Fall of 2023, and we are preparing to highlight them in a virtual town hall on Tuesday, April 30, 2024 at 11:00am. The guidelines are not a step-by-step process; no guidelines could possibly encompass the myriad variations of systems and file structures that exist from agency to agency and office to office. The Electronic Records Guidelines at least lay out some general principles and best practices that can hopefully help start a conversation within the agency on how to deal with these often confounding materials. And of course, if there are further questions, our Records Management Analysts stand ready to assist state and local agencies.

In 2019, I gave a presentation on electronic recordkeeping to a professional association meeting discussing the same issues I’ve discussed here today. That was only five years ago, and yet today, the situation has evolved even further. Now it’s actually more difficult to get people in a room to discuss a given topic.

There is now an expectation that there will be a virtual option to attend the meeting, that the meeting will be recorded and closed-captioned with an AI-generated transcript (possibly edited by a live human being), and that both the video and transcript will be shared and made accessible afterwards. It’s a wonderful way to open the doors to more participants than previously could have been engaged. But as opposed to a scenario where a bunch of people gather in a room to learn, now we’re “gathering” separately and creating new records to share where before there were none – records that will themselves need to be managed in the future.

In other words, change remains the only constant, and while we can’t predict what changes come next, we can assume that changes are indeed coming. Software, hardware, file formats, and storage media are all developing at a blinding pace from Shanghai to Silicon Valley, and records managers are left following behind, struggling to keep up in terms of strategies for how to integrate new practices with traditional ones. But there are resources available at the Library of Virginia (and elsewhere), and we continue to refine and publish effective best practices as we learn. We’re all in this changing environment together, and together we’ll find ways to make it work for us all.

Happy Records and Information Management Month!

Chad Owen

Records Management Manager

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