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849 research paper

  1. 1. The Records Continuum and Postcustodial Records Management<br />Kathryn Patrick<br />Emporia State University<br />The Records Continuum and Postcustodial Records Management<br />I began my investigation into the Continuum model by reading Archival Theory and Practice in the United States: A Historical Analysis by Richard C. Berner, the man whom I had seen credited with the idea. I was confused, then, to find no mention of the Continuum in his work. I thought at first that I had merely chosen a publication from too early in his career, but the problem was not that simple. First, it was actually Ian Maclean, Chief Archivist with the Commonwealth Archives Office of Australia, who pioneered the principle. Furthermore, I had assumed that the Records Continuum was a specific, theoretical model, proposed as an alternative to the Records Life Cycle. In actuality, it is—to put it simply—a different approach to Archives and Records Management altogether, which only became known as the Continuum theory later on. As an approach, the Continuum advocates a holistic view of a record, proto-record, or collection of records in its (or their) total operational context. Though it can be seen as an alternative to the Life Cycle model, (and many have written about it in that regard), that is not the entirety of the theory.<br />The Life Cycle model puts records into one metaphorical box or another, and defines what the Records Manager or, in their time, the Archivist ought to be doing with that record. In the Continuum, however, the roles of the Records Manager and Archivist are less divided and concrete; moreover, the Continuum does not define any boxes for records to be categorized into. The Continuum does not provide solutions for dealing with the every-day problems of Records Management. Instead, it is an approach to solving those problems. It is this approach, as abstract and ill-defined as it may be, that Maclean developed in his work with the newly created Commonwealth Archives Office, and it is not a model but a worldview. <br />There are, however, models built within that worldview, largely by Frank Upward and his colleagues (1996, 2000). In this paper, I will largely be examining Upwards work (1996, 1997); first discussing his view of the Continuum as a Postcustodial paradigm, then presenting his model of the Records Continuum as included in Structuring the Records Continuum parts one and two, and finally discussing the uses and limitations of both the Continuum approach in general and of Upward’s Continuum model in particular in practical Records Management. <br />The Records Continuum as Paradigm<br />As I mentioned above, the continuum theory is more of a worldview than a model or even really a theory. As such, it fits the very definition of “paradigm”—and a transition to this view is a quintessential paradigm shift. Kate Cumming (2010) described the continuum as “essentially a way of seeing,” and while she does not use the term “paradigm” herself, neither does anything in her article contradict that designation (p. 41). As for Frank Upward, he has written an article specifically titled, Modelling [sic] the Continuum as Paradigm Shift in Recordkeeping and Archiving Processes, and Beyond (2000).<br />The Records Continuum and Postcustodial Records Management<br />Though it had been in use in Australia since Maclean’s creation of the concept in the 1950’s, the Continuum did not really garner much interest elsewhere or further development until the early 90’s (Cumming, 2010). This revival, as Cummings describes it, “was triggered in part by the advent of electronic record keeping.” It is not that electronic records are so much different from paper records (though there are significant and often troublesome differences), or even that their management calls for radically different measures (though, again, there are certainly issues involved. Either or both of these problems could be solved within the existing paradigm, and indeed there are many theories and practical methods that are dealing with these problems. However, the traditional methodologies of Records Management dealt largely with issues of custody, and as electronic records defy custody by their very nature as ones and zeros, this made every issue that much more confounding to deal with.<br />Upward (1996) gives a detailed explanation of the term “postcustodial”; in a nutshell, “postcustodial” means a turn away from the duality of “in our possession” or “not in our possession,” or of “belonging to the Records Manager” or “belonging to the Archivist.” In postcustodial thinking, the record in question may be in the Archivist’s custody, or it may not be—that does not matter in terms of what must be done to or with that record. To quote his own summary:<br />“…postcustodial approaches do not have to mean a rupture with the past, despite their de-emphasis of physical custody. Postcustodial approaches have grown out of a collapse in confidence in the coping ability of linear regimes of physical custody. They involve a new way of thinking about archives and records management and as such provide a new analysis, fresh shapes for us to consider, different associations of ideas, and a paradigm that is felt intuitively…” (Upward, 1996)<br />If you noted the term “paradigm” in there, you may be pleased to find that that is exactly where I am going next.<br />There is nothing contradictory between the Continuum Paradigm and a Postcustodial Paradigm. In fact, they both call for a de-emphasis of the strict limits and a turning away from linear views (as both Upward and Cumming discuss), and Continuum thinking has always been “a unified strategy,” which does argues against “separating records and archives and making the management of each a separate and discrete profession” (Cumming, 2010, p. 41). The two worldviews are entirely complementary, and it is no accident that Upward, a champion of the Continuum, discussed postcustodialism in such detail. <br />They do not have to be taken in tandem, of course. It is possible to use the Records Life Cycle model within the Continuum Paradigm (though it is an awkward fit), and there are postcustodial approaches that are not necessarily based in the continuum. For example, Upward cites Greg O’Shea, who, in Keeping Electronic Records, writes: <br />“This strategy is a departure from the traditional custodial approach taken by archival institutions but recognizes that in the electronic age physical custody is no longer an essential element of preservation strategy. What is essential is for electronic records to be identified, controlled and accessible for as long as they have value to Government and the Community.”<br />The two paradigms are not joined at the hip, but they are a good fit, and postcustodialism’s rejection of clear division between the duties of records management and of the archives based on custody may make the often-vague tenets of the continuum easier to understand and accept. <br />Upward does caution that “some archivists may try to reduce the issues [of the continuum and of digital archives] to one of custody, but the challenges are much broader than that” (1996). However, he goes on to argue that, if the archival (and presumably the records management) profession wishes to avoid a split between those who deal with paper and those who deal with electronic media, “it has to be able to develop ways of expressing its ideas in models of relevance to all ages of recordkeeping.” His implication is clear—the continuum and postcustodialism are clear choices, when it comes to the paradigms within which these new models, inclusive of paper, electronic, and any other kinds of records, should be built.<br />Upward’s Model of the Records Continuum<br />Upward’s model (reproduced above) is built on four axes, out over four dimensions (1996). He is careful to note that the various categories represented are not strictly divided from each other, that not every record will be affected by every axis, and that there is no defined (and certainly no linear) order to how a record will move along the axes and through the dimensions. In Modelling [sic] the Continuum as Paradigm Shift in Recordkeeping and Archiving Processes, and Beyond (2000), he modifies the model for several different contexts, but there are few substantial changes between versions. <br />For a full explanation of the basic model, I will defer to Upward’s article (1996); however, I will attempt a basic elucidation. Each axis has to do with a critical element of context, while the dimensions tie those contexts together and suggest what recordkeeping system is most applicable to a record that fits that context. <br />The recordkeeping axis represents the state of the record or proto-record, and is the closest axis to the traditional Life Cycle model, as it follows a record from creation to description, then to organization, and then to incorporation in a general body of information. However, as a record moves out to each stage, it does not lose the previous quality; an individual record within the cultural memory is still a document that has been created. In this way, despite its comparability to a life cycle, the axis is still about context rather than about the passage of time. And of course, despite the terms “archive” and “archives” being used, custody is not a necessary condition, nor even a consideration.<br />The identity axis indicates what entity that record is associated with, and the transactional axis has to do with the use of that record—whether it is a single act, involved in an ongoing activity, facilitating a general function, or supporting an overall-purpose. Finally, the evidence axis is about the record’s state as evidence. Again, for all of these axes, a record may be involved in any of (or at least most of) the categories, depending on when it is considered, or more importantly, in what context that record is being considered. <br />As an example, let us say that the record in question was created as part of a reference transaction at an academic library. On the identity axis, that record may be considered as relevant to the reference librarian, to the reference department, to the library, or to the university. On the transactional axis, that record may be equated to a reference transaction, to the library’s reference work, to the library’s services to professor’s, or to the library’s mission of helping their patrons to obtain the information that they need. <br />As I stated above, the dimensions are about systems rather than context—a record involved in the first dimension (“create”) would fall into “a pre-communication system for document creation” (Upward, 1996). The second dimension concerns the communication system or systems, the third dimension concerns organization, retrieval, and dissemination systems within the organization, and the fourth dimension, systems for organization, retrieval, and dissemination outside of the organization.<br />As you can see, this is a holistic and flexible approach—Upward intended to and, I believe, succeeded in maintaining the nature of the continuum, while providing some points of reference by which sense can be made of an individual record or of a collection of records, at a single point in time or over a period of time. <br />Practical use of the Records Continuum<br />In part two of Structuring the Records Continuum (1997), Upwards notes that, when it comes to recordkeeping paradigms: <br />“In one case the record needs to be stored, recalled and disseminated within our institutional frameworks; in the other case it is the processes for storing, recalling, and disseminating the record which need to be placed into a suitable framework.” <br />This, indeed, is a model that places systems into a framework, rather than a framework around which systems may be built. However, systems which were built solely for electronic records, designed from a technical standpoint with little or no consideration for user’s needs, let alone theoretical soundness, or systems which were built solely for paper records which do not serve electronics well if at all, do not have a place in Upward’s model or in the Continuum paradigm as a whole. <br />Instead, if Upward’s model and Continuum thinking are to be put to use, systems should be built to fit into this model, with not only practical useability in mind, but also a postcustodial, Continuum worldview. This may be a tall order, if for no other reason than that it precludes the simple adoption of a premade system. Upwards notes that “The action part of the duality has raced ahead of the structural one; the structuration process has only just begun" (1997). He believes, and I would agree, that systems must be made with serving the actual processes and procedures of an organization as a first priority. It is important to bear in mind that all of the above structures (Upward’s model, postcustodialism, and the continuum) are flexible, and were made to be tailored specifically to a specific organization’s needs. If a system is created to fit the daily actions of an organization, and if the records manager or archivist (or, dare I say, the records manager/archivist) understands how these structures fit their organization, they may find that conforming to these extravagantly abstract-sounding theories are not as impractical as they may first appear.<br />Conclusion<br />When Ian Maclean began his work of creating a framework for the Australian Commonwealth’s archives, he surely could not have forseen the modern computer, let alone its far-reaching consequences for recordkeeping. However, in creating a fledgeling paradigm that was intended to fit the individual needs of individual organizations, he gave rise to a flexible, evolving, and perhaps even eternally modern way of thinking. Through this paradigm, the incredible difficulties of navigating issues of custody, organization, context, preservation, and evidentiary integrity created by the use and the ubiquity of electronic records may be mitigated. Especially in conjunction with postcustodialism and Upward’s structuring model, the continuum is a viable and a compelling paradigm, within which the records management profession may find answers that it has been looking for since companies started issuing email addresses to their employees, and ensure that they will be a valued and a valuable resource for generations to come.<br />References<br />Cumming, K. (2010). Ways of seeing: Contextualizing the Continuum. Records Management Journal, 20(1), 41-52.<br />Upward, F. (1996). Structuring the Records Continuum - Part one: Postcustodial principles and properties. Archives and Manuscripts, 24(2). Available online: http://www.infotech .monash.edu.au/research/groups/rcrg/publications/recordscontinuum-fupp1.html<br />Upward, F. (1997). Structuring the Records Continuum - Part two: Structuration Theory and recordkeeping. Archives and Manuscripts, 25(1). Available online: http://www.infotech .monash.edu.au/research/groups/rcrg/publications/ recordscontinuum-fupp2.html<br />Upward, F. (2000) Modelling the continuum as paradigm shift in recordkeeping and archiving processes, and beyond: A personal reflection. Records Management Journal, 10(3), 115 – 139.<br />