Just the facts, ma’am

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The police procedural Dragnet began as a radio program in the 1940s and then had two runs on television in the 1950s and 1960s. Jack Webb was involved in all these productions and starred as Sergeant Joe Friday. Yet he never uttered the most famous phrase associated with this franchise. “Just the facts, ma’am” was said by Dan Akroyd’s version of Friday in the 1987 movie. Does it matter that most people have conflated this statement with the most famous face of Dragnet rather than attributing it to the actor who actually said it?

The Society of American Archivists chose for its 2020/2021 One Book, One Profession title Laura Millar’s book, A Matter of Facts: The Value of Evidence in an Information Age. She is obviously concerned with facts, and more precisely how facts are documented. She wrote this book not for a professional audience but for the general public (which begs the question why this less than 200-page book was priced at nearly $50, but I guess that’s a question for the marketers).

In the coming weeks, I’ll delve into the book itself, but in the meantime, you can watch the March 25th panel discussion that included Millar, Geoffrey Yeo, Valencia L. Johnson, and Louis Jones. Millar’s comments will be incorporated into my review of the book, but Yeo made some statements that are worth highlighting.

  • Information managers often don’t have the historical context that is desired by archivists.
  • Self-interest often impacts record making.
  • All people need to embrace the importance of opposing falsehoods.
  • An effective use of evidence requires reasoning skills.

As for Dragnet? The fields of history and entertainment are rife with apocryphal stories that sound good but may play fast and loose with “the truth.” I suppose that’s where our reasoning skills come in — distinguishing fact from confabulation.

Duty to document

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The InterPARES Trust and the Canadian Centre for Information and Privacy Studies combined forces to parse a 2015 scandal in British Columbia known as the “Triple Delete” scandal. A government staffer was charged with willfully making false statements to mislead (or attempt to mislead) under the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. This resulted from the deletion of emails related to a freedom of information request relating to the so-called Highway of Tears, an area notorious for cases of missing and murdered women. In order to circumvent the email backup systems that are ubiquitous in most government and private organizations today, these emails had to be thrice deleted:

  • once by moving the emails into the Deleted folder
  • twice by deleting the emails from the Deleted folder
  • and finally by manually overriding a backup, which would have allowed these deleted items to be recovered for up to 14 days

As egregious as this violation of the public trust may sound, the conclusion of this project is that this action was born of a government culture where the tendency is towards secrecy. In order to avoid scrutiny of the decision-making process, government has moved to an oral culture where important decisions are simply not documented. Yet the project asserted scandals that have arisen in the province of British Columbia have come from what the public was not told rather than from blow-back to information that was shared.

On April 16, 2021, the documentary Duty to Document premiered along with an expert panel discussion and Q&A session, which can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcFp9HCnU7g. The session included:

  • Luciana Duranti, Professor, Archival Studies, School of Information, University of British Columbia
  • Mike Larsen, President, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association; Co-author of Brokering Access: Power, Politics, and Freedom of Information Process in Canada
  • Victoria Lemieux, Associate Professor, Archival Studies, School of Information, University of B.C.; Lead, Blockchain research cluster, Blockchain@UBC
  • Andrew MacLeod, Legislative Bureau Chief, The Tyee magazine

They briefly discussed the benefits that can come from proactive disclosure of information but concluded these actions usually aren’t incentivized. Ultimately, these thought leaders concluded that the duty to document should be prescribed in law. More information about this project can be found at https://www.infoandprivacy.ca/duty-to-document/, on the website of the Canadian Centre for Information and Privacy Studies.

On this side of the 49th parallel, I’m afraid we have our own failure to document encouraged by a culture that discourages the creation of records you don’t want to be called on to produce. Personally, the historian side of me likes to point to the 1974 U.S. v. Nixon case, where the U.S. Supreme Court compelled President Nixon to produce recordings from the Oval Office, as the birth of the mistrust of records. But I also recognize that’s too simplistic an explanation.

Perhaps we are starting to figure out part of the incentivizing piece. In North Carolina, the Public Records Act specifies that government agencies that proactively make records available online are then exempt from answering specific individual requests for these records:

(a1) A public agency or custodian may satisfy the requirements in subsection (a) of this section by making public records available online in a format that allows a person to view the public record and print or save the public record to obtain a copy. If the public agency or custodian maintains public records online in a format that allows a person to view and print or save the public records to obtain a copy, the public agency or custodian is not required to provide copies to these public records in any other way.  (NC Gen. Stat. 132-6 (a1))

Therefore, agencies can identify records that are frequently requested and preemptively make them available online. Now if we can just eradicate the fear that the records we produce are going to be used against us. I want to believe there’s a way to balance the needs of constituents to understand the actions of their government with the desire by government leaders to protect the recipe for the secret sauce.

The sounds of records management

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Music has always been a big part of my life. Between a long history of piano playing and choral singing together with an eclectic taste in music, I have developed an ability to identify songs that I think reflect a mood or a moment. For many years when I was teaching high school social studies, I challenged my students to pick a song that represented one of the U.S. presidents – and I always took pleasure in trying my hand at it, too.

With that background, for many years in my current life as a records analyst, I’ve been trying to figure out what song could represent records management. I have finally settled on “Jimbo’s Lullaby,” the second movement from Claude Debussy’s The Children’s Corner. It incorporates the melody of a French folk song and may have been inspired by an elephant that was brought from the French Sudan to live in Paris during Debussy’s childhood. With apologies to Prokofiev for creating a poor imitation of Peter and the Wolf, and with apologies to all that my piano has gotten a little out of tune over the past year, here’s my explication of how “Jimbo’s Lullaby” represents the arc of electronic records management. If you want to hear my renditions of each section, the clips are embedded in this PDF. (NOTE: You may need to open the PDF separately rather than in an embedded viewer.)

One of the primary reasons I chose this piece is because of the elephant connection – because in many ways I think electronic records management is the elephant in the room of good information governance. With no visible or tactile sign of the accumulation of electronic records, it is far too easy to ignore them. The beginning of the piece is fairly disjointed and sounds a bit like an elephant moving playfully around a space. This represents the time when no one acknowledges electronic records are something that needs to be addressed, although they permeate the entire organization.

In the next section, we hear the melody of the French folk song, and this represents early simple efforts to identify what records are being created and maintained electronically. Although the music is still a bit haphazard, the melody is helping things begin to take shape.

In the next section, we can hear a representation of what happens when someone takes leadership over the project and begins to establish goals and responsibilities. The same melody persists, but there’s more support from the left hand – in our mirror situation, this could be when money and personnel are devoted to develop a plan for managing electronic records.

We lose track of the melody in the next section. In real life, this could represent a number of different scenarios – maybe someone leaves and there’s new leadership over the project. Maybe the project suffers from scope creep and loses focus on its intended purpose.

In the next section, we hear a little bit of the folk song melody return, but the tempo is moving much faster and there’s more complexity to the accompaniment by the left hand. This is the point in the project when deadlines are set to finish inventorying the file formats being maintained and their required retentions, and everyone is working frenetically to meet those goals.

The next section brings some new sounds into the mix and the range becomes more expansive. This is the point at which the project leadership recognizes the importance of building coalitions, and whereas initially primarily RM people were involved, now IT and legal and compliance folks are also being invited to the table and share their perspectives on issues that could influence the retention of electronic records.

In the next section, we hear a new tune briefly introduced in the left hand. This represents the re-framing that occurred after new voices were brought into the project. After the left hand holds the melody for several measures, then it passes back to the right hand, which represents what can occur when there’s some confusion about who’s in charge after new people join the project.

In the next section, we hear the culmination of the various efforts into one coherent sound. Although the folk song and the second theme can still be heard distinctly, they are melded together in such a way that they seem to be supporting each other, as can happen in a project when people begin to define and assume necessary responsibilities for the success of the project.

In the final section, we hear the continuation of the second theme in the left hand followed by the random movements of a lumbering elephant. So our project isn’t complete, but with electronic records management, we shouldn’t ever anticipate that it will be. Nevertheless, the pace has slowed because the work that has been accomplished thus far has identified the elephant and established what needs to be done to preserve these electronic records adequately.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my RIM month foray into which song can represent records management. Feel free to check out “The sound of archives.”

Sine qua non

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In the legal world, the Latin phrase sine qua non often takes on the interpretation of a “but-for” causation — specifically in torts, the rule establishing a causal connection between an act and an injury that would not have occurred but for the act.

However, when I recently re-watched the episode “Sine Qua Non” from the 4th season of Battlestar Galactica (originally aired 2008), a discussion between the attorney Romo Lampkin and Admiral William Adama provided me a perspective much closer to the idea of essential records in the records management realm:

Lampkin: “Sine qua non, as they say.”

Adama: “Without which not.”

Lampkin: “Yes, those things we deem essential, without which we cannot bear living, without which life in general loses its specific value, becomes abstract.”

Perhaps this is too grandiose a way to appraise which records are essential to the core functions of an entity. But the concept of losing specific value warrants a little more investigation. Maybe there is a need to determine which records provide a lens into the work that distinguishes one business from another, or one agency from another — capturing the necessary breadth and depth of specific work in order to avoid the oblivion of abstraction.

If you’d like to see another application of science fiction to records management, you can check out the post I wrote last year for SAA’s Records Management Section that references Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The dilemmas of John Hope Franklin

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I consulted John Hope Franklin’s historical works frequently while I was an undergraduate history major and a high school history teacher. Although he had retired by the time I got to Duke, I one time had the opportunity to take some of my AP U.S. History students to a lecture he gave. And I was among the throngs that gathered at the Chapel in June 2009 to celebrate his life and the life of his wife, Aurelia. I began reading his autobiography, Mirror to America, when he died in March 2009 and was struck by the intersections of his life with significant events in U.S. history, including the Tulsa riots and the Brown v. Board of Education case.

After making the transition into my archival career, I continued to see Franklin’s name, though in a different context. The barriers he encountered conducting archival research for his first published book, The Free Negro in North Carolina (1943), are frequently cited to demonstrate the exclusivity of the archival world. His chapter entitled “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar” was first published in 1963 as part of Soon One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, and it summarized his experiences at the State Department of Archives and History in North Carolina, the Alabama Department of Archives and History, and the Library of Congress. But his autobiography actually provided a more complete picture, especially of the situation in North Carolina. The director at the time acknowledged the repository held relevant materials for Franklin’s research but “admitted quite frankly that in planning the building the architects had never anticipated that any African American would ever do research there” (83). Segregation predominated in the South at this point, so in less than a week, the ad hoc solution devised was to set up Franklin in a small room near the research room and provide him with keys to the stacks, rather than require white assistants to serve him. Within two weeks, the white researchers were the ones crying discrimination because they were not also afforded keys to the stacks; to prevent the chaos of having open stacks, the director ordered his assistants to begin pulling collections requested by Franklin.

I have previously confessed my dissatisfaction with Black History Month in that it seems to provide an excuse to focus on the stories of Black Americans for only 28 days out of the year. At least it has expanded since Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week in 1926, to be celebrated during the week that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14), which were already celebrated in the Black community. Having watched and read the vignettes and perfunctory tributes throughout this month, it occurs to me that the remainder of this chapter by Franklin still retains much relevance for today’s world of archivists and historians and academics. He provided example after example of Black scholars who faced doubts — both internal and external — about their qualifications as scholars and “were drawn inexorably, irresistibly into the field that became known as Negro studies” (67) so they could simultaneously exercise their scholarship and prove the Black race was not inferior. But in the process, a form of segregated scholarship was perpetuated based on the expectation that Black scholars would focus on topics of Black history and society. Franklin summarized:

“This was a tragedy.  Negro scholarship had foundered on the rocks of racism.  It had been devoured by principles of separatism, of segregation.  It had become the victim of the view that there was some ‘mystique’ about Negro studies, similar to the view that there was some ‘mystique’ about Negro spirituals which required that a person possess a black skin in order to sing them.  This was not scholarship; it was folklore, it was voodoo” (69).

In face of these dilemmas, Franklin concluded, “the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his knowledge and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common” (76). While I greatly admire Franklin’s purpose and integrity, I find myself wondering if he didn’t let white America off the hook and place too great a burden on his Black colleagues. For too long, I think American society has been okay forcing the Black community to prove that it belongs — academically, economically, and otherwise. And there’s usually been the unspoken assumption that Black people should be the ones talking about Black history and culture. In the last year, there’s the new layer of expecting Black friends and colleagues to represent the Black viewpoint and to explain to white people how to be anti-racist. If there is an archival collection or an academic field that focuses on issues of race and color, the presumption is that a person of color should be in charge. While I’m fully in support of having a diverse workforce, I’m afraid this attitude perpetuates two problems:

  1. It pigeonholes Black scholars in a Black world. What about the Black grad student who loves British literature or the one who wants to work in a science lab rather than become a professor role model for other students of color? Are their academic interests somehow less valuable? When I was teaching high school history, I frequently gave students the opportunity to choose topics for research, and I’ll never forget one of my Black students telling me, “I’ll do anything except research slavery. I’m tired of always being the one who has to explain those horrible stories.” Just as Jewish students sometimes felt too close to the horrors of the Holocaust, this student saw too much of his personal history in slavery and didn’t want to have to spend extra time investigating it. Instead, white female prohibitionists made a much better research topic for him.
  2. It removes responsibility from white Americans to be knowledgeable and conversant about the history and problems of communities of color. It’s far too easy for white communities to shrug their shoulders while talking of empowering communities of color to solve their own problems. Sounds to me more like trying to absolve guilt and remove the responsibility for generating solutions.

Admittedly, there’s a fine line between white Americans co-opting Black culture and drowning out Black voices rather than learning how to participate in needed change. And there’s the larger problem that a truly diverse workforce may be impractical until the wages of archivists are more comparable to other fields requiring graduate studies. But I’m definitely convinced that the problems that still plague the academic world and society at large cannot be shouldered by a small segment of our population. We all need to be the type of patriots Franklin described, finding solutions to our common problems.

A roadmap for the information landscape

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Recently the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP), housed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hosted an online forum entitled “How did we get here? Where do we go next?” With academic panelists specializing in media, information, and data, one of the key topics they discussed was disinformation and its role in the January 6 events at the U.S. Capitol. While one of the narratives that has emerged to explain this insurrection is that it was fueled by disinformation, several of the panelists had a different take, arguing that the people who converged on the U.S. Capitol that day knew the facts — in particular about the outcome of the previous election — but were motivated to act by their white supremacist ideas and by a desire to counteract a growing multiracial coalition.

I see this as somehow akin to the idea that a person under hypnosis won’t do anything she wouldn’t do otherwise — so while disinformation may add fuel to the fire, a person under the influence of disinformation won’t participate in anything he wasn’t already primed to support. Yet this only takes into account disinformation serving as a sort of dog whistle for those who have already made up their minds. What about the role of disinformation in radicalizing and persuading those who’ve not already established their mindsets and frameworks for action? Perhaps I’m influenced by the many years I spent teaching in a high school, but I’m especially concerned about impressionable youths.

When I taught my students how to conduct historical research, I tried to show them how to evaluate the reliability of sources. Finding monographs and published articles by credentialed historians is easy enough using the resources of an academic library, but many resources are hidden behind paywalls and unavailable to the routine searcher. And searching for truth on the Internet is risky business. Search engine algorithms are engineered to show us more of what we’ve looked at in the past, so if you begin with a hypothesis that coincides with your worldview, the Internet will likely serve up an echo chamber of sources corroborating your supposition. Even the idea of doing your own research has been skewed, with many lauding YouTube videos and other social media outlets as do-it-yourself solutions that are more reliable than the information provided through mainline media sources. And students, like many of us, aren’t averse to taking shortcuts, so if it’s possible to find someone with an accessible platform who’s filtering and interpreting events and information for you, they likely assume, what’s the harm in taking their word for it?

Needless to say, there’s much more research to be done about the role of disinformation and the best means of confronting it. But in the meantime, as professionals who also reside in the information realm and are frequently called upon to teach research skills, I think it behooves archivists and librarians to consider the principles laid out by CITAP regarding the requirements of researchers analyzing disinformation:

  • To take a holistic approach to disinformation that is grounded in history, society, culture, and politics;
  • To center analyses of how social stratification/differentiation – including race and ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual identity – shapes dynamics of disinformation;
  • To have at the forefront of inquiry questions of power, institutions, and economic, social, cultural, and technological structures as they shape disinformation; and,
  • To have clear normative commitments to equality and justice.

The archival world is not immune to questions about authenticity, so I think it’s in our best interest to consider proactively how these debates about disinformation relate to our work. I intend to revisit this issue in the future, but in the meantime, if you’re looking for other resources, CITAP is creating a reading list that brings together a number of publications, primarily from academic voices. While it’s not entirely clear at this point what route can help us eradicate disinformation, it is obvious this effort first requires understanding that often times disinformation is a tool for rather than the root cause of mayhem.

RM Compliance: Accountability

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To round out my current investigation of various methods of encouraging records management compliance, I turn to accountability. In simple terms, being accountable means being able to explain or justify actions (or inactions, as appropriate) and being held responsible for these decisions.

accountability puzzle piece

Accountability can be deployed in the records management realm in a number of ways:

  • RM responsibilities can be incorporated into work plans and evaluated by a supervisor on a regular basis.
  • Internal auditors can evaluate compliance with the retention and disposition schedule by determining whether records eligible for destruction are still being maintained in offices.
  • Organizations can measure themselves against industry standards to evaluate whether they are adequately carrying out their RM responsibilities. An example of a standard is ISO 15489 (Information and documentation — Records management), maintained by the International Organization for Standardization.
  • One way of benchmarking progress toward compliance is through the use of a maturity model, such as the Information Governance Maturity Model or the Digital Preservation Capability Maturity Model.

Undoubtedly, accountability adds a layer of bureaucracy to a records management program. But for people who may not be motivated by things like norms, accountability can provide an avenue for their compliance by establishing consequences for improper or inadequate actions.

RM Compliance: Costs

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In my continuing look at methods of encouraging compliance in the field of records management, today I turn to costs. Both individuals and organizations might be motivated by the goal of reducing the costs associated with records management.

costs puzzle piece

The economic costs of maintaining records are the most obvious. Back in April for RIM month, I produced some posts for the blog of SAA’s Records Management Section that provide some guidance about calculating the costs of records storage:

Each post includes an overview of issues to research when trying to calculate your costs along with a 1-page brochure as well as a spreadsheet that provides some basic math of how to make these calculations. Each also takes into consideration in-house and vendor storage.

But economic costs are not the only ones to consider. There are also personnel costs — and these factor differently depending on whether or not an organization is exercising good records management. Managing records takes regular, dedicated time. Although I’ve never encountered someone who’s tried to put an actual dollar amount on the personnel costs of RM, I suppose it could be done. On the other hand, if an organization is not managing its records appropriately, the personnel costs come in the form of time wasted looking for files that have not been properly indexed or stored or that are misplaced in a sea of redundant, obsolete, or trivial (ROT) documents that should have previously been disposed. Be it for audits, discovery, or public records requests, most organizations are sometimes compelled to produce records, and as soon as someone asks for them, it no longer matters whether the records could have been destroyed previously; they now all must be produced.

Which raises the final type of cost — liability costs for records that are retained longer than required. Sometimes this liability may be nothing more than having to generate a more robust response to a public records request. But if your organization suffers a breach of some sort and exposes more records than should have been available to bad actors — especially if there are confidential records in the mix — the costs are amplified. So even if the economic costs of RM don’t motivate everyone, perhaps consideration of the personnel costs and liability costs can help tip the scale to a more compliant RM environment.

RM Compliance: Positive reinforcement

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In my ongoing series on compliance in the records management realm, this week I turn to positive reinforcement as a mechanism for encouraging compliance. As opposed to last week’s look at deterrence, positive reinforcement is the principle that favorable outcomes or rewards can lead people to repeat desired behaviors.

positive reinforcement puzzle piece

Let me first provide a different lens on compliance. In its efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus, Duke University has deployed what it calls the C-Team, with the C standing for both care and compliance. These employee volunteers go around campus encouraging mask wearing and physical distancing. If you’ve been paying any attention over the past 9 months, you realize this sort of compliance is by no means automatic, especially among young people. But the C-Team hands out coupons for free coffee and smoothies to reward those who are doing the right things. This is only one arrow in its quiver, but Duke has definitely had remarkably low rates of COVID transmission on campus, so apparently positive reinforcement can work.

So what could this look like in a records management field? Obviously most kinds of positive reinforcement other than an attagirl will require a little bit of money. But the prizes don’t have to be lavish and could take the form of a small gift card or a free lunch for someone who takes on the taming of the shared drive. Or if there’s a larger group that needs to be praised, maybe there could be a pizza or sub party for the unit most in compliance with the retention and disposition schedule. Someone with some HR pull could maybe let the person who completed an annual file inventory go home early on a Friday. And if you happen to work in a place that oversees your own parking, you could assign a prime parking location to the RM employee-of-the-month.

RM Compliance: Deterrence

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In my ongoing series on compliance in the records management realm, this week I turn to deterrence as a mechanism for encouraging compliance.

deterrence puzzle piece

Deterrence is a simple premise: scare people enough about the possible repercussions of their actions to convince them to do the right thing. Think of the mutual assured destruction approach of the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Or the anti-drug ads from the 1980s: This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Except it’s never quite that simple. While you may strike fear in the hearts of some who will them carefully seek to avoid calamity, others will belittle the victims and assume they would never fall prey to such a disaster.

In the records management field, it can be handy to have laws that not only compel compliance but do so by assigning penalties. Those of us who teach records management like to have some ready examples of those situations in which poor records management has caused measurable results — often financial but sometimes ever more far-reaching.

  • Enron hid its debts and then when the SEC was investigating, their accounting firm Arthur Andersen shredded financial documents. The companies were dissolved and many of their executives faced both financial and criminal penalties.
  • Almost any day of the week you can find an example of some data breach that has occurred and exposed customer information. Most states have laws that require disclosure to affected parties in short order and likely additional repercussions.
  • Many companies and government agencies have been victims of ransomware and have been left to decide whether to pay the ransom or lose months while reconstructing data that had not been properly backed up.
  • Far too often, there are stories of HIPAA breaches where the careless disposal of records led to the exposure of patients’ medical information. Breaches can result in civil monetary penalties and even criminal penalties.

Some people crave boundaries and will appreciate knowing exactly what they can do without crossing an RM line. But don’t be surprised if some push back and ask if anyone has actually ever been charged with a misdemeanor for destroying a public record without permission.

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