How recordkeeping has changed since 1908 (or has it…?)

It’s not often we come across records documenting recordkeeping procedures in our collection, let alone one written in 1908. Such a gem was recently discovered by one of our public access staff.

Department of Lands records document 1908.
Department of Lands records document (QSA Item ID 25377).

It’s a report recommending changes to improve recordkeeping in the Queensland Department of Public Lands.

The report got some of the Government Recordkeeping staff at QSA thinking about how much has changed in records management since then. The most obvious changes being the increasingly decentralised nature of recordkeeping and that there are now a multitude of technologies used to create and manage records. But what about the similarities? Are overarching records management goals still the same? Are we grappling with the same fundamental challenges that seemed to exist 107 years ago, just in different formats?

It’s not clear if a particular event triggered the Report by the Public Service Inspector on the Records Branch Department of Public Lands (Item ID 25377) but at the time the Public Service Board had the power to initiate investigations and make recommendations on the efficient operation of the public service. The Public Service Board is now known as the Public Service Commission and has more of a focus on delivering strategic workforce services to the public service.

The report covers three main themes – improving efficiency, tracking records, and managing different record types. Although this report was written about the Records Branch, it discusses managing ‘papers’, not records (perhaps a forerunner to our preference for terms like ‘business information’ rather than public records). And terms rarely used today such as ‘Records Clerk’, ‘aways’ and ‘bring ups’ were in common use then.

A key recordkeeping principle in the Department of Public Lands was to ensure “each file of papers afford as far as possible a complete history of the case”. This was so that Lands staff had every document in front of them before they made decisions on land applications or took any action on the case. One hundred and seven years later, we are still striving to reach this recordkeeping nirvana of having ‘full and accurate’ records. Now though, we have to try and achieve this by managing the full range of both paper and digital records that we all deal with on a daily basis.

However, in a manual world of records management, the Public Service Inspector determined that the “system causes delay…papers cannot always be found when wanted [and] if a file of papers is mislaid, the work is obstructed”. Again, another similarity that has transcended time, and especially relevant in a digital world.

Another recommendation the Inspector made to improve the efficiency of managing records was that “information now filed with papers which can be done without, should cease to be so filed”. We interpret that as the Inspector advising departmental officers to identify those papers that were public records and place only those on file, leaving out ‘ephemeral’ and non-records. Still good advice today!

The report also makes a range of other recommendations where the principles still hold true today, including moving away from individual case files to files grouped by functions (sound familiar?), and suggestions for improved tracking of papers (which among other things, would hold individual officers responsible for mislaid papers).

We have no record (or at least have not come across it yet) of how these recommendations might have affected records management in the Public Lands Department. Hopefully as a result, processes were improved and papers were able to be located more efficiently – and we come full circle again – isn’t this what we are trying to achieve today, just in a predominantly digital world!

Jessica Freckelton

Research Officer – Government Recordkeeping

3 thoughts on “How recordkeeping has changed since 1908 (or has it…?)

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  1. An interesting post!

    I was having a conversation with some colleagues along these lines recently, i.e. what can we take from the past to inform the future of RM Practice. Specifically we were discussing the essence of what worked in the paper world and how we translate that into a digital environment.

    Files were discussed, as they have been a bedrock of practice. Today we still spend a lot of time trying to get people to put “documents” into files. Largely, it seems, we do this because RM systems still adopt the file structure view of the world. We’ve never really questioned if files are a natural fit in the digital world and what the alternatives may be.

    A view was arrived at that perhaps the essence of files wasn’t necessarily the concept of a file itself, rather that the file is an effective mechanism for creating relationships between documents. Much as documents are a mechanism to create relationships between individual pieces of paper. Have the right relationships and context is created, or full and accurate records – depending on terminology. It’s all so simple in theory!

    Our question then become how we take the essence of the concept of a file, that being to create relationships between documents (or more generally information), and apply that to a fragmented digital world where like information exists across system boundaries files may not be the natural way to group information.

    Figuring that out, it seems, is another story entirely!

  2. Thanks Nick, for your comment and sharing your conversation! It’s sparked a few interesting conversations around the office and certainly made us think!

    Our general consensus is that in theory you are probably right.

    In a paper file, you’re physically limited to how many bits of paper you can fit inside a physical folder with control systems written on the folder. The file model is also more than just about providing containers for records. It’s partly about creating relationships between the records for the benefit of building a ‘full and accurate’ picture of the business transaction. It’s also about trying to capture the context in which the records were created. The way we do recordkeeping currently, the file gives us the function and activity context, as well as additional contextual metadata like retention status, security etc.

    In the digital world, you can (theoretically) have an infinite number of items in any container. This is limited by the technical capability – e.g. size or number of items that will fit, or capability of system. With digital, it’s the metadata that creates the context and relationship between items. The richness of metadata for each item (or aggregation of items) will really depend on functionality of recordkeeping system. But the metadata captured by the system won’t give you all of the information you need for future access. You’ll still need to have some kind of process to make the connections between items or groups of items to help create context. Maybe groups of entities? … (a file by another name?)

    It can also be human nature to categorise things into containers for greater control and accessibility – we do it with our emails and personal filings at home. Even if we have really powerful search capability available to us to find things, files/containers provide that browsing capability which may only become more valuable in a world of overwhelming volumes of records. Although of course, container/file names can also be unhelpful to those not intimately familiar with their logic.

    Seems we don’t have a simple response for you! This is still an evolving field and there’s no easy answers. At the moment, people all over the world (in archives, libraries, commercial businesses) are working through issues like this. We’ve got some people here at QSA who are very interested and involved in the international conversations and solutions.

    And we enjoy having the conversations! Keep the musings coming! We love to hear your thoughts!

    Digital Archives Team

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