Thursday, October 7, 2010

Best Practices Exchange, day three: Vermont functional classification

Crested saguaro in front of Old Main, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, 1 October 2010. As its name suggests, Old Main, which was built in 1891, is the oldest building on the campus. It now serves as the university's admissions office.

I know that this is a really tardy post, but I haven't had much time for this blog as of late. Immediately after the 2010 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) ended last Friday, I rented a car and headed to see an old friend in Tucson that I hadn't seen in (her word) hmmty years. I flew out of Phoenix last Saturday morning, and between overfull flights and an overfull head I wasn't able to write anything. When I got back to Albany, I needed to focus on digging my way out from under an avalanche of work, taking care of some last-minute Capital Region Archives Dinner stuff, and getting ready to go on vacation. This post was written at ALB, mid-air between ALB and DCA, and DCA (which is fast becoming my least-favorite airport), and posted from my parents’ house in Ohio. My parents and I are heading to my aunt's Internet-free house in West Virginia tomorrow morning, so I'm going to be disconnected for a little while. I'm actually kind of looking forward to it.

Every BPE session I attended was interesting and worthwhile, but Policy and Administration 7 was particularly thought-provoking. It centered upon two very different but equally compelling initiatives: the functional classification infrastructure developed by the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration (VSARA) and a grant-funded University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill effort to create a joint master's degree program in library/information science and public policy. In lieu of writing a single, monster post, I'm going to discuss Vermont's work in this post and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill project in a companion piece. (NB: I've gotten permission from the presenters to discuss these projects, so names will be named and details will be detailed.)

Tanya Marshall noted that VSARA's distinctive approach to appraisal is rooted in its newness: VSARA was established in 2003 within the Secretary of State's Office, and it acquired records management responsibilities in 2008. The newly hired staff had a deeply felt need to assess the structure and functions of state government and to identify important records held by agencies. They also had to contend with a large volume of records that the Secretary of State had acquired in past decades. They quickly realized that these records were broken down into series that were actually accessions: for example, driver's license records created in the 1900's were classified as a series, and identical records created in the 1910's were classified as a completely separate series.

As Marshall and her colleagues began researching the structure and functions of state government and began compiling the results of their research, their objectives gradually evolved. They sought to:
  • Establish intellectual control over their existing holdings
  • Study state government by focusing on its parts
  • See the "big picture" of state government from multiple vantage points
  • Develop an objective strategy for documenting state government functions, legislation, and agencies over time
  • Capture and reuse staff research, especially stable information such as legislative acts and dates of creation
  • Develop a balanced and consistent appraisal approach
  • Document recordkeeping decisions
  • Create reports and other resources as consistently and as efficiently as possible
  • Develop the ability to export and reuse data in various ways -- including ways not yet envisioned by staff -- and to conform to ISO 15489 and other standards
The Vermont Functional Classification System (VCLAS) that Marshall and her colleagues developed uses standardized terminology to record information that breaks down the complexities of government into its constituent parts:
  • Legislation
  • Public agencies
  • Areas of accountability (also called domains)
  • Activities (e.g., permitting, licensing)
  • Transactions
Each of these areas is further broken down into facets that support many different types of analysis, and VSARA staff can use VCLAS to do a number of really interesting things:
  • Identify agencies that are or were engaged in specific activities. In addition to supporting VSARA's internal needs, this capacity can help VSARA supply information to others. For example, several years ago, officials who wished to examine the state's permit-issuing activities were impressed by VSARA's ability to identify, with little advance notice, all of the state agencies that issued permits
  • Analyze activities to determine the types of records likely to be held by an agency. Staff have discovered that activities tend to generate the same types of records regardless the creating agency or area of responsibility, and in many instances they can generate macro-level inventories of the types of records that a given agency likely holds and then work with agency personnel to determine whether the records actually exist and are being managed properly
  • Conduct functional analyses of related activities, including those that are performed by more than one agency
  • Analyze domains and activities to identify records that most clearly warrant long-term preservation
In the future, VCLAS may also help staff conduct functional analyses that:
  • Identify electronic records that warrant permanent preservation but are at risk of being lost
  • Identify current and planned electronic recordkeeping systems that will house electronic records of enduring value and work with the state Chief Information Officer to ensure that these systems manage the records properly
  • Enable VSARA to supply records creators with some basic metadata about the electronic records in their possession.
Cool stuff.

Throughout Marshall's presentation, I couldn't help but think that my own repository already gathers a lot of the data that VSARA collects and adds to VCLAS -- information about agencies' statutory mandates, organizational structure, core responsibilities and activities -- but some of it is collected by appraisal archivists and some of it is collected by reference/description archivists, and different elements reside in different systems. I suspect that most other state archives are in the same boat -- and that most, if not all, of us would benefit from giving the work of our Vermont colleagues a very close look.

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