If I may be permitted to make a brief introduction: My name is Kyna Herzinger, and I am a new Records Analyst with the State Archives. I have spent over eight years working with manuscript collections, institutional archives, oral histories, and even rare books. Though my professional background has focused on historical records—and indeed, I’ve spent many delightful hours processing and preserving early photographs and manuscripts—I am eager to expand my experiences to include records management.
What, you might ask, excites an archivist about working with the modern world’s voluminous records? For this archivist, it is the opportunity to participate in that part of a record’s existence that precedes the moment it enters into the care of an archive; it is a front-row seat to watch the development and use of information.
In the world of information management, we call the various stages of a record’s existence the “lifecycle.” Carie Chesarino discussed the lifecycle of a record in a blog post last May, but to briefly recap, the lifecycle is a model that is embraced in the U.S. and that views information in distinct stages ranging from record “birth” (creation) to “death” (disposition). Here at the Government Records Center, our world revolves around this lifecycle: we identify records when they are “born,” we help local and state agencies care for them as they “mature,” and schedule some for “death” when their legal, fiscal, and administrative values end. Only select records that have enduring value will be “resurrected” as archives.
The lifecycle model has its limits, though. For instance, it creates a sharp distinction between current and historic recordkeeping by defining custodial responsibility based on the record’s life stage.
So why does this matter? It is, after all, a fairly logical way to view records, right?
Well, let me introduce you to an alternative called the “records continuum.” The theory of a records continuum was first articulated by Australian archivist Ian Maclean and envisions recorded information as a continuous whole by breaking down the conceptual barriers between records management and archival administration.[i] Stated another way, records are both current and historic from the very instant they are created; consequently, appraisal, capture, and preservation occur at the time of record creation. This somewhat radical assumption expands the boundaries of an archivist’s sphere of responsibility by anticipating record use, in some instances, even before the event that occasions a record’s recording.
The records continuum is especially useful in two ways. First, it focuses not simply on managing paper or digital “stuff,” but on capturing the concepts and contexts that created the record. Second, this model suspends our collective tendency to ground records in a set time or space and to then assign time-based values to those records; it shifts focus, instead, to the recordkeeping systems that carry records forward and enable their often multidimensional use.
Don’t get me wrong, Maclean’s arguments have been heartily debated, but they have also been harnessed to investigate archival activities in the digital age. Continuum theory, for instance, supports the notion that information professionals—whether record creator, record manager, or archivist—must create a sustainable model of record capture, documenting both record creation and context.. Continuum theory also supports ongoing maintenance in recordkeeping activities, providing a foundation for information professionals to simultaneously assume a posture of proactive engagement: principles we energetically support.[ii]
Aside from providing a conceptual framework by which this archivist can bridge the worlds of records management and archives, the records continuum offers some helpful ways to expand our collective understanding of records and their potential uses.
[i] Ian Maclean, “Australian Experience in Records and Archives Management,” American Archivist 22, no.4 (October 1959): 383-418. Frank Upward identifies the seeds of continuum theory sown by Maclean in his article, “In Search of the Continuum: Ian Maclean’s ‘Australian Expereince’ Essays on Recordkeeping.” Available: http://www.infotech.monash.edu.au/research/groups/rcrg/publications/fuptrc.html.
[ii] Frank Upward, “Structuring the Records Continuum – Part I: Post Custodial Principles and Properties,” Archives and Manuscripts 24, no. 2 (1996): 268-85. See also Christopher Lee and Helen Tibbo, “Where’s the Archivist in Digital Curation? Exploring the Possibilities through a Matrix of knowledge and Skills,” Archivaria 72 (2011): 123-168.