Friday, July 28, 2017

SAA 2017: records management, the web, and open data

Courtyard of Tranquility, Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon, 26 July 2017.
What follows is a quick stab at outlining a few ideas that came to the fore during two sessions -- one of which I was a participant and one in which I was an audience member -- and during the Government Records Section's annual meeting. Some are my own, and some are other people's, and all of them concern in some way our profession's inability to explain the value of records management programs, and in particular government records management programs, to the broader public:

  • Government archivists and records managers have tried for decades to get public officials, policymakers, journalists, and the public at large to understand that government records management and archives programs are essential to ensuring government accountability, efficiency, and transparency. We haven't gotten a lot of traction, and I'm increasingly convinced that our lack of success is because we frame our arguments in ways that make sense to us but not to the vast majority of our fellow citizens. Why do we keep doing the same thing and expecting different results? Why aren't we working with public relations professionals and other people who are adept at crafting simple, resonant messages and communicating them to broad audiences? How would Don Draper sell records management? 
  • As one archivist in a session I attended this morning noted, governments that release the data they gather or create as open data -- data that third parties can use, reuse, and redistribute subject only, at most, to the requirement that the source of the data be identified may not pose much of a records management challenge. For example, this archivist's public sector employer, which has begun sharing datasets it has created with the public in an effort to be proactively transparent, treats the versions of the datasets it posts on its open data website as convenience copies. However, as other archivists pointed out during the annual meeting of the Government Records Section, the controversy and wave of "citizen archiving" initiatives that ensued when the new presidential administration removed certain types of information from federal government websites suggests that at least some members of the public have come to expect that information posted online will remain readily accessible in perpetuity. I have the feeling that, in the coming years, we're going to devote a lot of energy to coming to grips with this expectation. Will we give into it and focus on harvesting and preserving web content, or will we ramp up our efforts to explain that managing government records appropriately may mean removing and disposing of data that was once freely available online? Or will we preserve tons of web content and explain that, in some instances, we work with agencies to identify and acquire additional, related records that are not available online and that, in others, we capture only snapshots of web content? 

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