2. Critical Success Factors for an Archival Electronic Records Program


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Electronic Records Research 1997: Resource Materials

Compilation Copyright, Archives & Museum Informatics 1998

Article Copyright, Author


File 8000-38

ELEMENTS OF AN
ARCHIVAL ELECTRONIC RECORDS PROGRAM

Prepared by:
Sheila Powell

Special Projects Officer

Records Disposition Division

15 November 1995

TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Introduction 3
1.1 Background 3
1.2 Approach 3
2. Critical Success Factors for an Archival Electronic Records Program 6
2.1 Mission of Program 6
2.2 Adaptation to Change 7
2.3 Responsibility and Accountability for Program 8
3. Common Elements of Archival Electronic Records Programs 8
3.1 Archival Appraisal 8
3.2 Active Archival Involvement in Standards Development and Systems Design 9
3.3 Reference Services 11
3.4 Investment in Staff Development 11
3.5 Program Evaluation 12
4. Archival Electronic Records Program Strategies 14
4.1 Custodial Approach 14
4.2 Distributed Custody Approach 16
4.3 Combination of Custodial and Distributed Custody Approaches 19
5. Conclusion 21
Endnotes 22

Appendix One -- Glossary

Appendix Two -- Bibliography

1. Introduction
1.1 Background
The Senior Management Committee of the National Archives of Canada (NA) has established the development of an integrated program for the acquisition and preservation of electronic records as one of its strategic outcomes for the years 1995-98. The National Archives was a pioneer in the field of archival electronic records programs, establishing its program twenty years ago. It has since been a strong influence on other programs at large archives, and current and former members of its staff, including Katharine Gavrel, John McDonald, Terry Cook, and the late Harold Naugler, have been among the most influential thinkers on electronic records issues. Over the past two decades, significant changes have been made to the NA electronic records program in an effort to keep up with changes in technology and the recordkeeping environment in the federal government. There remains, however, a need for self-evaluation and change if the program is to be able to ensure the preservation of the increasingly large portion of Canada’s archival heritage that is created and maintained in electronic format.
To this end, the NA has embarked on a series of activities that will lead to a strategy for a revised electronic records program. One of these activities, the result of which is this report, is the development of a prototype of an archival electronic records program, based on a review of the relevant archival literature, and of the elements of such programs at other major archives. The prototype set out in this report will be compared with the existing elements of the NA program, which are outlined in a separate report. With additional analysis from an outside expert on electronic archives, the project team will prepare options for an integrated electronic records strategy for the consideration of the Senior Management Committee.

1.2 Approach
The original intention of this report, as assigned by the Director General of the Archives and Government Records Branch, was that it would set out non-institution specific elements of an integrated electronic records program. These elements would be “best practices” according to the archival literature, and together would constitute a prototype electronic records program against which the existing National Archives’ electronic records program would be assessed.1 Once work on the report was underway, it became apparent that while there is some agreement in the literature as to how certain discrete functions should be carried out (such as preventive preservation techniques for magnetic recording media), there is no single prototype of how an integrated archival electronic records program could or should operate, no one “best” way to do any of the steps involved.


First of all, it is important to define the terms archival electronic records program and preservation. For the purposes of this report, an archival electronic records program (also referred to as an electronic records program) is a system of policies, procedures, and activities, planned and carried out by an archival institution, the goal which of is the preservation of records in electronic format designated as being of archival value. Also for the purposes of this report, preservation of electronic records consists of the actions taken to keep electronic records readable and/or interpretable. Please see Appendix One for more detailed definitions of these and other terms.
The majority of the literature on electronic records consulted for the preparation of this report was archival, that is, it was written by practising archivists, archival managers, or archival theorists. It also became clear very quickly that the literature rarely deals with micro-level issues such as accessioning or processing of electronic records, and therefore does not hold out any immediate solutions to these sorts of technical problems. Where technical issues are addressed in the literature, the rapid changes to the technology and the pioneering nature of much of the writing means that solutions offered, even as recently as three years ago, can now be viewed as obsolete or unworkable. The trend in the literature, especially as written by the managers of archival programs such as the New York State Archives and Records Administration, Australian Archives, and the Archives Authority of New South Wales, is to deal with macro issues, particularly the examination of the overall direction of archival electronic records programs for planning or “re-engineering” purposes, and proposals for the direction that the programs should take.
The author has concluded, therefore, that instead of a single model for how an archival electronic records program can be established, there are a range of options, based on the environment in which an archives operates. This report will set out the author’s understanding of the archival and management issues surrounding the operation of an electronic records program. Consequently, the report offers broad management strategies for consideration, not immediate solutions to particular issues within the National Archives.
Hypothesis
As archives and archivists grapple with how they will preserve electronic records, they find themselves questioning fundamental archival practices and traditions as they apply to all media, from the definition of a record to concepts of archival value to the role of archives as the custodians of records. It is increasingly apparent that electronic records will be the catalyst to a far-reaching re-examination of the missions and mandates of archival institutions, and of the role of archives and archivists in institutions and in society in general. The critical question facing archives is not whether electronic records should be handled as a special medium or integrated into existing practices for all other records: the question that must be answered is how archives and archivists will remain relevant in the face of continuing, fundamental changes to our society’s recordkeeping practices and the challenges these changes pose to archives’ accountability and cultural responsibilities.
Archives, therefore, are at a crossroads without a road map. The author contends that the answers to the question of which way to go must be found within the archives’ internal and external environment:


  • the archives’ enabling legislation or authority

  • the mandate and acquisition policy of the archives

  • the financial and human resources available to the archives

  • the nature of the archives’ relationship with its parent institution and/or donors

  • the archives’ internal culture (its history, traditions, management style, etc.)


While it is clear that all current assumptions about the policies and practices of archives relating to all media must eventually be addressed, archives must waste no time in coming to grips with the immediate problems posed by electronic records. An examination of the environmental characteristics listed above will lead an archives to identify the direction that its archival electronic records program will take. The broader issues relating to all the archives’ activities will become clearer as the immediate problem of electronic records is addressed, and archives will be well-positioned for more in-depth self-examination into the next century.2
Approach Taken in Report
Once the overall direction of the program has been established, the archives can then determine how it will approach each of the tasks involved in an electronic records program. The combination of how a particular archives decides it will operate its program can be called a strategic approach. This report sets out strategies for how an electronic records program could operate; the elements have been grouped into three possible approaches for ease of description and discussion in section four. The three strategic approaches addressed in this report are as follows:
1. Custodial Approach
2. Distributed Custody Approach
3. Combination of Custodial and Distributed Custody Approaches
The discussion of each strategy sets out how each component of the program should operate according to the parameters of the approach (not all components are applicable to all approaches). The components addressed are: the archives’ relationship with the creating agency, archival appraisal, acquisition, control, processing, description, preservation, reference and diffusion, and human, technical, and information resources. The advantages and disadvantages of the approach, and any other relevant issues are also considered.
The discussion of the three approaches is in Section Four, Archival Electronic Records Program Management Strategies. In the complex world of archival electronic records programs, the reduction of the variables to three general strategies might appear simplistic; there could, of course, be any number of variations and combinations of the elements necessary to an archival electronic records program, each combination forming a different strategy. The important point is that the elements of a program cannot be analysed, planned, or carried out in isolation from one another, or from the larger context in which the electronic records program and the entire archival institution operates.
Section Two, Critical Success Factors for an Archival Electronic Records Program, discusses three broad elements that must be present regardless of the specific direction chosen for the program. Section Three, Common Elements of Archival Electronic Records Programs, addresses the elements of an electronic records program that should operate in the same manner (such as archival appraisal on the basis of functions performed by an agency), again, regardless of the particular direction chosen for the program. There are also two appendixes to this report. Appendix One is a brief glossary of terms. It is recommended that readers examine the glossary before reading the report, as some of the terms may be unfamiliar, or may be familiar archival terms used in a slightly different context in relation to electronic records, such as the term preservation. Appendix Two is a bibliography of the literature consulted during the preparation of this report.
Some comments on a draft of this report indicated that some AGRB staff believed that this report did not acknowledge that all archival activities relating to electronic records should be performed in conjunction with records of all other media. The author of this report agrees that electronic records must be integrated into all “normal operational processes of the institution,” as stated in the directions given to the participants in the activities leading to the development of the NA electronic records program by the Director General of AGRB. Nevertheless, electronic records pose particular challenges that must be addressed, and it is outside the scope of this report to deal with issues relating to records of other media.
The report does not make specific reference to issues relating to Geographical Information Systems (GIS), Computer Assisted Design (CAD), or other graphic electronic systems. It is assumed that the program elements discussed here are generic in nature, and apply to all aspects of an electronic records program.
A companion report has been prepared by Ann Martin of the Government Archives Division that sets out current National Archives activities and initiatives relating to electronic records. The author of this report on non-institution specific elements of an electronic records program has therefore endeavoured to avoid any references to National Archives-specific programs and policies.
2. Critical Success Factors for an Archival Electronic Records Program
There are three basic management prerequisites for the success of any archival electronic records program:
2.1 The archives must establish a mission for its archival electronic records program.
An archives must define the mission of its electronic records program and of the archival institution as a whole, and use the resulting statement of purpose and identity to determine how the program will operate. This definition must take place before any other aspects of how the program will operate are determined, as the nature of the program must conform to its overall purpose and identity. David Osborne and Ted Gaebler state in their influential book Reinventing Government that “Clarity of mission may be the single most important asset for a government organization,” and that it “can drive an entire organization, from top to bottom.”3 This is precisely what any archives should do when establishing an archival electronic records program.

The stated purpose of the program should be specific enough to provide meaningful direction for its operation, but should also allow for it to respond to technological change (see next prerequisite for success). The purpose and identity of the program will in part be determined by its enabling legislation or policy, the needs of its sponsoring agency and that of any other clientele, its budget, and other internal and external factors. For example, an archives must decide if its archival electronic records program is only to preserve records, defined in the glossary in Appendix One as evidence of the transaction of business or the conduct of affairs of the archives’ sponsoring agency, or if it will also act as a data library by preserving and providing access to data accumulated by the sponsoring agency. An archives must also determine if electronic records will be preserved only to support the continuing business needs of its sponsoring agency, or for social and cultural purposes as well.
The archives must decide whether it will deal with electronic records in an integrated fashion throughout the range of its programs (such as appraisal, description, and reference services), or if it will treat electronic records as a special and separate medium. Looking to the external environment, the archives must also determine the role of its program in relation to other institutions that preserve electronic records, data, or publications. This will prevent duplication in preservation between the archives and other institutions, and ensure that the needs of record creators and users are met by the appropriate institutions and in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.

2.2 The program must be prepared and able to adapt to current and changing organizational, technological, social, and economic conditions.
Individuals responsible for an electronic records program must recognize that the world of electronic recordkeeping and information systems is constantly changing due to technological advances and the increasingly complex uses of these systems by record creators, and that this unrelenting change must be met with a willingness to experiment with different ways of doing things, including different ways of organizing work, and not with a reluctance to make decisions in case they turn out to be wrong. The archives must also recognize that change occurs not only in relation to technology but also in relation to public policy and society itself, and that these non-technological changes can also have an impact on the success and relevance of its electronic records program.
While the archives is affected by changes taking place in its environment, it must also be prepared to initiate change itself, when such change would enhance its ability to preserve records of continuing value. This includes amending the archives’ mandate when it is no longer adequate to allow the archives to do its work of preserving records. Even as serious a move as changing enabling legislation should not be ruled out; in some jurisdictions, legislative change might be required in order to ensure the preservation of electronic records.4
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