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.
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!
Research Officer – Government Recordkeeping