Searching for Authority: Archivists and Electronic Records in the New World at the Fin-de-Siécle
First Monday

Searching for Authority: Archivists and Electronic Records in the New World at the Fin-de-Siécle

The 1990's marked a turning point for archivists and electronic records management (ERM). Major conceptual solutions for ERM were proposed, and while these approaches have been adopted by some they have also generated intense debate and discussion. Three questions continue to remain unanswered. What is the authority for these approaches? How pervasive have these approaches been in influencing archival practice? How well known are these approaches across the archives field? This paper attempts to provide some preliminary answers to these questions. First, it reviews the literature on electronic records as published in the four leading North American English language journals, the American Archivist, Archival Issues, Archivaria, and Provenance for the past decade. During this period these four journals published a total of 62 articles on electronic records, and this part of the paper provides an in-depth citation analysis of these articles. Second, the author draws on data collected as part of the preparation of a single state wide long-range plan (Pennsylvania) for the management of archives and historical records, re-evaluating the data for what it tells us about the success and relevance of new approaches for ERM. The author uses these two sources of evidence to reconsider how archivists have approached ERM. He argues that the real responsibility, or authority, for ERM from an archival perspective must derive from local and institutional applications rather than relying only on model or magic bullet solutions provided from a higher level. While these new models have been very useful in helping the archival profession re-orient itself to records and record-keeping issues, they may not have been very helpful for providing practical solutions at the local level. The paper will conclude with some comments about what needs to happen to close the gap between practice and theory, application and model.


The Search for Authority for Electronic Records Management in the Archival Literature
The Possible Fatal Flaw: Electronic Records Management and Practice
Conclusion: Records Professionals in a Brave New World


Even in entering a new century, many archivists - both experienced and novice - seem uncertain about how to contend with electronic records [1]. Of course, this may depend on how one frames this question. What archivists may be most sure about is that they do not have the solution to the management or maintenance of electronic records, although there are those who hold up the promise of a "magic bullet". These magic bullets offered thus far have raised as many questions as provided answers or solutions [2]. This is ironic at best, a disaster at worst. It is ironic in the sense that archivists and records managers have struggled or grappled with electronic records for over three decades. It is a disaster in the sense that new interests, like digital preservation and digital libraries, have focused on topics and issues that have not led to solutions for the long-term maintenance of electronic objects [3]. It is possible, of course, that some other societal or professional group, even a quite unlikely one, will emerge to salvage the documentary heritage that is in danger of being lost in the so-called Information Age [4]. But what will become of the archivists? What will become of archives? What will happen to the crucial archival mission? These are all real, honest questions, not merely alarmist cries to upset the profession.

Part of the problem may be how many archivists define their mission. The bigger issue with records professionals and electronic systems may be the missions held by such professionals, most notably archivists with a cultural mission and records managers with a business or organizational orientation. Records professionals are only just beginning to come to terms with the greater (greater than historical or cultural) value of records in society. Electronic records specialist Margaret Hedstrom writes that "to benefit fully from the synergy between business needs and preservation requirements, cultural heritage concerns should be linked to equally critical social goals, such as monitoring global environment change, locating nuclear waste sites, and establishing property rights all of which also depend on long-term access to reliable, electronic evidence" [5]. This change in mission may be a very difficult endeavor, as we learn from other related professions, as it will require more than mere rhetoric and intentions and more likely contests between invested organizational traditions, corporate cultures, public perceptions, and constituency demands [6].

I postulate that the issue represented here is partly a quest for authority, sources that provide if not unequivocal at least strong indicators of what, how, and why archivists should approach electronic records management (ERM). Where are archivists searching for their authority to support their brave new mission of administering the world's electronic records systems? Some critics of newer ideas about ERM, such as Linda Henry, forcefully argue that these "new paradigm" writers "seldom referenced past archival literature or practice" and ignore the previous writings of "any historical archival theoretician" [7]. As it turns out, this is not true, as few (except critics like Henry) cite such writings if they are restricted to the likes of pioneers like Schellenberg or Jenkinson.

The reason for this different kind of authority quest has been captured by others. In 1991 Hedstrom recognized that electronic records systems were in their "infancy." Besides this newness, archivists at that point in time were "unfamiliar with their nature and characteristics," the systems were seen as "complex and multi-faceted" requiring "consultation and collaboration with experts in other fields," and "electronic records issues ... challenge basic archival theory and practice" [8]. Some authors, like Blouin, have looked to other disciplines in order to gain an increased understanding of how organizations create and maintain records. The explicit purpose of doing this has been to "revisit" archivists' traditional principles, such as diplomatics, and it has resulted in some, like Blouin, seeing a new role for these principles for other disciplines studying organizations and their recordkeeping [9]. The lesson with the latter is, of course, that archivists and other records professionals must read and work outside of their own fields in order to be able to learn from other disciplines which might have something to offer about the understanding of records and recordkeeping systems [10]. The notion that only archivists have something useful to say about records and recordkeeping systems is a poor approach in an era when many disciplines are responsible for such systems or have a vested interest in records. Architects design buildings but many others - local public officials, homeowners, community associations, and environmentalists (to name a few groups) - have a vested interest in how buildings are designed, constructed, and used. The same holds for archivists, society, and other groups when it comes to records.

Some may well wonder why this would be an issue. After all, archival knowledge is often defined as an interdisciplinary one [11]. But archivists need to re-consider the distinctions made between interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. As Everett Rogers suggests, "An important difference exists between interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, although the two terms are sometimes used synonymously. Interdisciplinary is a type of scholarly activity falling between two disciplines, while multidisciplinary is a type of scholarly activity involving scholars from more than one discipline who came together to share their perspectives on a topic" [12]. Archivy, in terms of electronic records, should lean towards multidisciplinarity, but it is uncertain where it might be heading. A reading of a decade of electronic records essays written by archivists reveals, however, that this endeavor may be interdisciplinary, but in a more negative sense - falling between many disciplines but not residing in the domain of any. Or, ERM may be now situated in another emerging field, like knowledge management, and how many archivists are thinking about or using knowledge management these days? [13].

The Search for Authority for Electronic Records Management in the Archival Literature

The problem may be how archivists approach ERM. Logically, one would expect that all archivists would accept this responsibility because it involves records. However, we know that many archivists are separated - intellectually and administratively - from current records management, including ERM. We know that others even resist accepting electronic records as records unless they are in paper form and can be filed manually into traditional systems. For these archivists, there is a resistance to change, as well as a resistance to accepting any new authority for working in ERM. If Jenkinson or Schellenberg or some other pioneering archival authority did not lead the way for ERM, then archivists have no need to be involved in such work, reflecting the manner in which Renaissance scholars used the texts of the ancients before the advent of New World exploration and modern science upset their equilibrium [14]. The lament by Linda Henry that archival pioneers like Schellenberg were steeped in practice and working with real archives programs [15] begs the question of, one, whether these experiences were good; two, whether these solutions were valid; and, three, the length of time these solutions or approaches might remain valid. It also ignores the fact that the real pioneers in working with electronic records from an archival perspective were archivists like Charles Dollar, Margaret Hedstrom and Harold Naugler (all of whom are cited frequently in the literature as authorities).

The dilemma is, of course, that recordkeeping systems have changed. As recordkeeping systems changed have archivists looked for a new authority? That is, have they updated their knowledge in working with ERM through their own direct experience or through the expertise of others and other disciplines? One place we can look is the sources cited by archivists in their writings about electronic records. Early in this decade, Anne Gilliland-Swetland conducted a citation analysis that indicated the "authors writing about archival automation are reading widely in information science and library literature but are finding the largest amount of useful material in archival journals." This suggests that, in the early 1990's, the authority for archivists for dealing with electronic records was themselves. Gilliland-Swetland then wondered that if we looked a decade down the road whether we would see that the "influence of the computing journals declines substantially as microcomputers become so mainstreamed into everyday life that authors do not need to refer to popular computing magazines and similar periodicals to find articles that address the very latest technical capabilities and uses of smaller computers" [16]. Gilliland-Swetland also connected this influence to the need for archivists to re-think how they are educated. I would go one step farther and suggest that what she was getting at was whether our authority for working with electronic records would stem from some theoretical perspective or from experience gained by actual working with electronic records.

Many, through this decade, have looked outside the immediate archival community for advice about working with electronic records. One reason for this has been the recent emerging archival literature on electronic records [17]. Margaret Hedstrom, noting the maturing of "archival theory" and the developing of a "consensus" on practice, wrote that, among other things, she would "exploit information technology and information systems concepts for management of electronic records" [18]. Victoria Irons Walch believes the archival community has reached the stage where "we can expect rapid acceptance of new technologies and a greatly increased demand for assistance in applying them, specifically through education and improved information resources" [19]. What Walch does not address is how archivists will get knowledge of the technologies in order to teach them.

Yet, archivists and other records professionals need to go beyond just noting emerging trends or aspects of consensus. It is more complicated than this. Everett Rogers, in his study of the discipline of human communication, notes that "important advances ... have often been made by schools composed of a coherent network of key scholars who are located in one institution" [20]. Archivy has generally lacked this critical mass. In the 1980s there emerged a core group working with electronic records issues, but there was no university foundation. In the 1990s the university foundation finally began to develop, but it is still not one that could be described as "coherent." Questioning what students in graduate education programs learn about ERM, as Henry does, again misses the point because such programs are far from mature. Besides, Henry's lament about the use of "confusing jargon and technobabble, both of which fail to enlighten archivists," also misses the point that much of this language is adapted from other disciplines because archivists have to communicate with others in order to solve ERM issues [21]. Does the ERM literature by archivists or published within archival journals represent anything more coherent?

From 1990 until the present North American archival journals published regularly on ERM topics: the American Archivist published 34 articles dealing with some aspect of ERM, followed by Archivaria with 18, Midwestern Archivist/Archival Issues with 8, and Provenance with only one. These articles covered a wide range of ERM issues, including the use of standards, research, technological implications, theory, legal cases, education and case studies [22]. These essays reveal much about the attitudes of archivists toward ERM, most notably that archivists are still looking inwardly, as if they are operating in a closed system, for solutions for ERM. The complaint that the supposed "supporters of a new paradigm" for ERM "cite themselves and each other" is simply not true - in fact, this is a characteristic of most of the archival literature with the exception that many of the "new paradigm" writers display a wider range of sources than others [23]. The inward aspect is particularly noteworthy as a number of the articles represent debates about how ERM is perceived within the archives field, a legitimate but certainly telling characteristic of the literature.

The 61 articles cite 1,170 sources. The disciplinary range of these citations reflects that archivists are still looking primarily to themselves for solutions to ERM despite the fact that the nature of electronic records and information systems involve software engineers, information scientists, information policy administrators and legal and administrative specialists as well as archivists and other records professionals. More than half of the citations are to publications and other reports written by archivists, whereas only a quarter of the citations are from the library and information science (encompassing computer science and information technology standards) fields (Table One). While this may appear promising, the fact remains that discussions continue to be dominated by archivists rather than reflecting disciplinary partnerships or multi- or inter-disciplinary patterns. The virtual non-existence of citations to the emerging scholarship on records and record-keeping systems written by historians, anthropologists, social scientists and others is troubling. [24]. The citations seem to reflect Gilliland-Swetland's conclusions of a decade ago.

Table 1: Disciplinary Affiliation of Citations
DisciplineNumberPercentage of Total
Archival Science70560.3%
Library and Information Science26222.4%
Records Management171.5%
Other [25]645.5%

The inwardly focused archives field is even more evident when we examine the citations in other ways. This is confirmed by noting the reliance on disciplinary journals, since journals remain the primary source for knowledge creation for the archival field and the most expedient print source for dissemination of research and case studies; again, there is a predomination of citations from archives journals (Table Two).

Table 2: Disciplinary Affiliation of Journals Cited
DisciplineNumber of JournalsNumber of Citations
Archives and Records Management20340
Library and Information Science3887
Women's Studies12
Political Science12

A list of specific journals producing the most citations also reveals the predominance of reliance on traditional archives publications (Table Three).

Table 3: Journals Producing Five or More Citations
JournalNumber of Citations
American Archivist150
Archives & Museum Informatics17
Archives & Manuscripts15
Journal of Education for Library and Information Science9
Archivi & Computer7
Records Management Quarterly7
Archival Issues6
Records & Retrieval Report6
CD-ROM Professional6

This is even more evident when glimpsing the most cited authors, virtually all of whom are archivists who have been writing about ERM for a decade or more (Table Four). The few non-archivists (Chandler, Eisenstein, Yates, and Zuboff) are cited due to their writing of classic volumes dealing with communications or technological shifts, and none are cited frequently enough (each of these authors are cited six or fewer times) to appear in a list of most cited. Identifying the half-dozen most cited publications also affirm the focus on archivists and their work on ERM matters (Table Five). Here we find all pivotal reports or key writings by archivists about information technology, ERM or records and recordkeeping systems.

Table 4: Most Cited Authors
AuthorNumber of Citations
David Bearman66
Terry Cook28
Richard Cox26
Margaret Hedstrom23
Charles Dollar20
Luciana Duranti18
David Wallace10
Victoria Walch8
Avra Michelson and Jeff Rothenberg8
Hugh Taylor8

Table 5: Publications Cited Eight or More Times
PublicationNumber of Citations
Charles Dollar, Archival Technologies and Information Theory: The Impact of Information Technologies on Archival Principles and Methods (Macerata: University of Macerata, 1992)13
Terry Cook, "Easy to Byte, Harder to Chew: The Second Generation of Electronic Records Archives," Archivaria, volume 33 (Winter 1991-92): pp. 202-21612
David Bearman, Archival Methods (Pittsburgh: Archives and Museum Informatics, 1989)10
United Nations, Advisory Committee for the Co-Ordination of Information Systems. Management of Electronic Records: Issues and Guidelines (New York: United Nations, 1990)9
[Richard Cox], Archival Administration in the Electronic Information Age: An Advanced Institute for Government Archivists (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh School of Library and Information Science), 1989, 1990, or 1991 reports8
Avra Michelson and Jeff Rothenberg, "Scholarly Communication and Information Technology: Exploring the Impact of Changes in the Research Process in Archives," American Archivist, volume 55 (Spring 1992): pp. 236-3158
Luciana Duranti, "Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science," Archivaria, one of the six parts8

The final characteristic worth noting about these articles in archival journals is the currency of citations. The archives profession sits somewhere in the middle of a humanistic discipline and a science in the sense of reliance on scientific research requiring access to the most recent literature, attesting to its traditional draw of individuals from history and other humanities but requiring some knowledge of other disciplines such as information science, law and management. One would think, however, that literature by archivists on ERM would reflect citations to very recent research and other literature because of the rapidly changing nature of information technology. Even here we see quite a range with many of the articles having a smaller percentage of citations to publications and other sources less than five years old (Table Six). In fact, only slightly more than two thirds (69%) of the total citations are to publications within five years of the appearance of the article.

Table 6: Percentage of Citations Less Than Five Years
Percentile RangeNumber of Articles

What we discover is that archivists look to themselves for authority in how they conduct ERM. This seems fine, since archivists are meant to be records experts. In this sense, why wouldn't they bring authority to this work? There are two reasons for concern. First, there is the need for archivists involved in ERM to have a wide range of knowledge about information technology. The review of literature suggests some weaknesses here, especially in what is not cited [26]. Second, there is the matter of just how much practical experience archivists have in ERM. We now turn and look at this issue.

The Possible Fatal Flaw: Electronic Records Management and Practice

Archivists seem content on waiting for someone or something to provide the answer - one that is easy to put in place and to replicate - for electronic records management. Moved to another context, this would seem less commendable. Think about the proclivity for strip malls in America. "From fast food to gasoline to motel rooms, regardless of the product, the marketing was the same. Familiar roadside architecture - cheap to build, easy to replicate, and easy to recognize from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle - catered to the mobile American, who demanded predictability in unfamiliar places" [27]. Archivists also seem to want predictability. The result might be electronic records management as unsightly as strip malls, even if the results seem practical. What we know in America about strip malls is that their convenience is often overridden by other problems, such as traffic congestion, crime, and environmental concerns.

As noted earlier, one of the problems may be how archivists themselves value records. A new breed of planners, community activists, and historic preservationists realize now that "all historic buildings ... have to remain economically viable if they are to provide any lasting public benefits" [28]. For a long time, many archivists were content to allow others to think of archives as old, useless and otherwise not very viable records. When records became useless to the organization or individual creating them, they were sent to the archives. Records captured as part of electronic records and information systems will rarely get to this point, because of the great financial and other resources invested in creating and maintaining these systems. The old dichotomies between current and non-current, custody and non-custody, and even records and archives may be distinct relics of the past.

The matter of archivists turning to an emphasis on real-work solutions and applications for ERM is not a new idea. A decade ago Frederick Stielow suggested that the "essential question for the Information Age may well be how to save the electronic memory" and while he focused on information technology standards as an approach, Stielow argued for a different kind of grass roots approach to the challenge. He noted that "no single answer exists for all archives or media - only general principles that must be reanalyzed over time" and wondered if "our theories and responses must be sufficiently proactive and flexible to deal with the dynamic nature of the new storage vehicles" [29]. Implicit in Stielow's argument was that archivists, at all levels and arenas, were actually fully engaged in ERM in order to gain experience with and knowledge of various approaches to ERM.

Some of this may be the reality of local versus national versus global realities. Denis Donoghue, commenting on the work of Michal de Certeau, understands that there are systems of power in place but that there is local resistance to this. "That is to say: local and individual practices do not fully yield to the system of power that for the most part controls them. Instead, they feature constant sleights of hand, bouts of opportunism, inventive trickery" [30]. We may be seeing this happen on the local level in the world of records professionals. Despite the real intellectual revolution that has occurred with electronic records management - the recognition that these records systems are the primary responsibility of archivists, that these are needed to be maintained in electronic form, that they challenge certain archival principles or assumptions - most archivists operate as if nothing has really changed. They are resisting something - of the change in their work, of a transformation of the kinds of long-desired researchers, or of a shift from more solitary and ordered practice to a more chaotic process of partnerships and collaboration.

The most graphic image of the American archival profession's difficulties in dealing with electronic records comes from the Historical Records Repositories Survey sponsored by the Council of State Historical Records Coordinators. This survey focused on non-governmental repositories. It found that only an infinitesimal portion consider electronic records as an important issue; any interest seems to be concentrated only in the largest repositories. In fact, when asked to name the "most pressing problem confronting your organization's historical records collection," the issue of electronic records was only listed on 17 of 2,532 responding organizations. One might assume, perhaps, that this could be because electronic records management is well under control. This is not the case. Only 23.8 percent of the respondents see any need for basic training in this issue for their staffs, while only 11.4 percent are actively collecting computer media [31]. Clearly, we can see a major avoidance going on, one that may spell disaster for future generations needing access to records.

In Pennsylvania, the state where I live and work, the situation looks even more bleak. Despite the existence of hundreds of archives and records management programs, only a handful of programs are engaged in work with ERM. The state government archives has a limited program, but one which is severely limited in resources, authority or knowledgeable staff. In fact, most government agencies work as if there are no particular requirements or concern for ERM - all risking the loss of many crucial records. Local government looks to the state government, and local government officials and records professionals are prey to unscrupulous vendors and gimmicks promising magical solutions to ERM. Universities, with one or two exceptions, ignore ERM, leaving individual units to fend for themselves in managing records. Local historical records repositories, responsible for collecting historically important personal papers and organizational archives, tend to ignore the existence of electronic records lacking the facilities to administer and provide access to such records [32].

The ramifications of a lack of practice at the local level are substantial. Over the years many records professionals have seen the problem with electronic records management as a problem with professional leadership. Not too many years ago Ira Penn portrayed a "leadership void" in the records management discipline in this way:

"In the 1960s, when the newly-established automatic data processing 'profession' laid claim to magnetic tape records, records management leaders responded - with silence and inertia. In the 1970s, when the newly-established information resources management 'profession' laid claim to all forms of electronic record media, records management leaders responded - with silence and inertia. And in the 1980s, with the litigation frenzy presenting the opportunity of a lifetime, with the prospect for legitimacy materializing and the chance to get back that which had been usurped looming within arm's reach, records management leaders responded - with silence and inertia" [33].

The problem with this statement is not that it is wrong, but that it fails to note that the leadership isus. This perspective also ignores the reasons why this lack of leadership has occurred; it is because the individuals filling these positions reflect what records professionals have been doing or not doing in their own institutions.

In fact, what we see in terms of effective or interesting ERM projects and efforts have been pilot or experimental efforts usually drawing on the University of British Columbia or Pittsburgh models or principles or both. These are important efforts, but they may be too little, too late or, worse yet, used by too few archivists and other records professionals. The Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany, SUNY "Models for Action" project is an excellent example. An effort to develop a "practical way to incorporate essential electronic records requirements into the design of new information systems," the project utilized the University of Pittsburgh (with some consideration as well of the University of British Columbia's work) recordkeeping functional requirements. It also used "business process improvement and re-engineering methodologies" and "system development methodologies" and worked on electronic records systems at one state agency: New York State Adirondack Park Agency.

The project worked with a variety of corporate partners, and it discovered a need to adapt the Pittsburgh requirements to include three broad categories of requirements: "records capture," "records maintenance and accessibility," and "system reliability." This project also had some interesting conclusions. The "use of the tools served to shift the focus of system design and development away from technology and toward the capture, maintenance and ongoing use of the Agency's business records." The project also brought a renewed focus on records. The functional requirements "present records management requirements in a way that is understandable to both program managers and technical staff." It made non-records professionals understand records management, ensuring "effective communication." And, it found that "perhaps the biggest weakness of the tools is the pre-condition for their use. That is, an organization must first recognize the importance of its business records and the costs and risks associated with ignoring them. Without this foundation, it is unlikely that an organization will invest the time and attention to detail that the tools demand" [34].

Another well-documented example is the Indiana University project providing a detailed effort to examine the viability of the functional elements developed by the University of Pittsburgh. This project, providing the kind of in-depth practical analysis supposedly favored by critics such as Linda Henry, concludes that the model is useful while at the same time determining the need for additional research, testing, and development. Rather than adopting a short-sighted defensiveness in protecting old practices, approaches, and principles, the team at Indiana takes nothing for granted and tests every assumption - resulting in a vision beyond "traditional records management practices that focus on managing the record series and the record throughout this life cycle, with the product of the analysis being the records schedule" [35].

What such projects reveal, of course, is that there is a great need for such projects becoming the norm for most archivists and other records professionals. Instead, we can find perhaps twenty of these kinds of projects being carried out worldwide, while most archivists and other records professionals ignore ERM except to hope that one or more of these projects bring the magic answer to all ERM issues and challenges. The interesting and important INTER PARES (International Research on Preservation of Authentic Records in Electronic Systems) project, headed by Professor Duranti and including research teams involving the national archives of Canada, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom and the United States, may determine much that is useful for a top-down approach in large national organizations. But this will only be relevant if archivists in corporations, other government levels and cultural organizations are equipped to work on ERM issues. These organizations are very different than national archives. What we need is for archivists, at whatever level, to possess the knowledge for working with all records systems. They must possess the authority for working with ERM that derives from informed experience, otherwise significant and substantial portions of our documentary heritage will be lost.

Conclusion: Records Professionals in a Brave New World

There are other reasons why archivists need to determine that the business of electronic records management is bigger than themselves, the entire records professions and even all the information disciplines. The world, especially as we pass into the new millennium, has become more interested in time, durability and memory. As The Economist reports, one project to construct a clock that "would run for 10,000 years" involved creating a "list of general principles: longevity, transparency, maintainability and scalability" [36]. This set of principles seems much like those principles set forth by archivists for designing new electronic recordkeeping systems. If the limited research projects give us these principles and these principles are used in all types of organizations by all archivists, then they will have been successful. Yet, detailed reviews of the professional literature and other evidence suggests that archivists are far from this point.

About the Author

Richard J. Cox is an Associate Professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences where he teaches archives and records management. He is the author of four books and many articles, and he is currently completing two books on the history of records management and policy aspects related to records management.


1. This is a considerably expanded essay from Richard J. Cox, 1999. "Buscant l'autoritat: arxivers i documents electronics al Nou Mon de fi de segle," Lligall: Revista Catalana d'Arxivistica, volume 14, pp. 133-149.

2. The two mega-models are those offered by the University of Pittsburgh and the University of British Columbia. One critical comparison has argued that the Pittsburgh approach may be too simplistic in its view of records, while the British Columbia approach provides a model that is far more centralized than the typical modern organization would support. This viewpoint suggests that the validity of the two approaches may depend on what one's institutional setting is providing the vantage point; see Paul Marsden, 1997. "When is the Future? Comparative Notes on the Electronic Record-Keeping Projects of the University of Pittsburgh and the University of British Columbia," Archivaria, volume 43 (Spring), pp. 158-173. Another critical evaluation, examining some of the tests of these requirements, suggests that most users of these models want to see them simplified and limited. But this other assessment goes further by suggesting that archivists need to be more aware of developments in business research, software development and other areas when looking for solutions. There is no magic bullet, but the solution comes from testing approaches in real organizations to solve real problems; see Margaret Hedstrom, 1997. "Building Record-Keeping Systems: Archivists Are Not Alone on the Wild Frontier," Archivaria, volume 44 (Fall), pp. 44-71. That these efforts have been viewed as "magic bullets" comes more from what many in the field expect - straightforward answers and solutions - than what the creators of these approaches were aiming at. My involvement in the Pittsburgh project led me to experience this, as expectations for far-reaching solutions increased even as the project, in its early months, worked to gain a handle for doing its work.

3. The topics include things like "architectures and systems for information organization, retrieval, presentation, and visualization, and on the administration of intellectual property rights." Margaret Hedstrom laments that, as a result, the "critical role of digital libraries and archives in ensuring the future accessibility of information with enduring value has taken a back seat to enhancing access to current and actively used materials. As a consequence, digital preservation remains largely experimental and replete with the risks associated with untested methods." "Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries," Computers and the Humanities, volume 31 (1998), p. 191.

4. That this has occurred has been commented on in the best-selling Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Anchor Books, 1995). Cahill considers how the monks in Medieval Ireland became great copyists of literature and records, leading Cahill to provide this closing homily: "If our civilization is to be saved ... if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints" (p. 218). Of course, we might consider this to mean than it will not be the technologists but others, many more wary about technology, who harness the technology for its fullest benefits.

5. Hedstrom, "Digital Preservation," p. 196.

6. See the very interesting study about the effort to introduce a new mission, generated by social historians, at the pioneering historic preservation effort, Colonial Williamsburg; Richard Handler and Eric Gable, 1997. The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

7. Linda J. Henry, 1998. "Schellenberg in Cyberspace," American Archivist, volume 61 (Fall), pp. 313, 322.

8. Margaret Hedstrom, 1991. "Understanding Electronic Incunabula: A Framework for Research on Electronic Records," American Archivist, volume 54 (Summer), p. 335.

9. Francis Blouin, 1996. "A Framework for a Consideration of Diplomatics in the Electronic Environment," American Archivist, volume 59 (Fall), pp. 466-479.

10. This has been a standard problem in many dimensions of archival and records management work. For example, some of the most interesting research on the history or records, recordkeeping systems and archives has come from outside the records professions (such as in anthropology, organizational management and history of literacy). For a discussion of this, see Richard J. Cox, "The Failure or Future of American Archival History: A Somewhat Unorthodox View," Libraries and Culture, forthcoming.

11. See, for example, the Society of American Archivists guidelines for graduate archival education at

12. Everett M. Rogers, 1994. A History of Communication Study: A Biographical Approach. New York: Free Press, p. 404.

13. There are numerous writings about knowledge management, but the most typical kind of assertion about what it represents reside with the many KM consulting firms that have developed. One of these firms, Knowledge Transfer International, states that "For KTI, knowledge management is a strategy that turns an organization's intellectual assets - both recorded information and the talents of its members - into greater productivity, new value, and increased competitiveness. It teaches corporations, from managers to employees, how to produce and optimize skills as a collective entity"; see Typical books included Karl M. Wiig, 1994. Knowledge Management: The Central Management Focus for Intelligent-Acting Organizations. Arlington, Texas: Schema Press, and Ron Sanchez and Aime Heene, editors, 1998. Strategic Learning and Knowledge Management. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Some advocates of KM view archivists and records managers as obstructions to their mandate. One recent example is Thomas H. Davenport, 1997. Information Ecology: Mastering the Information and Knowledge Environment. New York: Oxford University Press. This is how Davenport characterizes records managers: "This staff role first became established in the era of file-folder-based customer information and has grown now to include both paper-based and electronic records. Records managers focus on creating, storing, retrieving, and using records without the loss of any vital data within those records. From a cultural standpoint, these managers are particularly concerned with preserving information, and are therefore less likely to enhance effective use of current information" (p. 113). For knowledge management from the archivist's point of view, refer to Bruce W. Dearstyne, 1999. "Knowledge Management: Concepts, Strategies, and Prospects," Records & Information Management Report, volume 15 (September), pp. 1-14.

14. See Anthony Grafton, 1992. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and then re-read Linda J. Henry, 1998. "Schellenberg in Cyberspace," American Archivist, volume 61 (Fall), pp. 309-327 to comprehend the manner of reading and interpretation I am discussing here. Especially see Philip Bantin's comment that Henry's criteria that established archival approaches are preferable need to be applied to critics such as Henry: "They too should be required to fully demonstrate the validity and applicability of traditional concepts and practices for electronic records management" (Bantin, 1999. "The Indiana University Electronic Records Project Revisited," American Archivist, volume 62 (Spring), p. 163, footnote 22.

15. Henry, "Schellenberg in Cyberspace," p. 323.

16. Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland, 1992. "Archivy and the Computer: A Citation Analysis of North American Archival Periodical Literature," Archival Issues, volume 17, number 2, p. 105.

17. Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland, 1993. "From Education to Application and Back: Archival Literature and An Electronic Records Curriculum," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 532-544. See also Thomas J. Ruller, 1993. "A Review of Information Science and Computer Science Literature to Support Archival Work with Electronic Records," pp. 546-559, in the same issue.

18. Margaret Hedstrom, 1993. "Teaching Archivists About Electronic Records and Automated Techniques: A Needs Assessment," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), p. 425.

19. Victoria Irons Walch, 1993. "Innovation Diffusion: Implications for the CART Curriculum," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), p. 512.

20. Rogers, A History of Communication Study, p. xii.

21. Henry, "Schellenberg in Cyberspace," pp. 324, 325.

22. In chronological order, the American Archivist essays included Victoria Irons Walch, 1990. "The Role of Standards in the Archival Management of Electronic Records," American Archivist, volume 53 (Winter), pp. 30-43; Margaret Hedstrom, 1991. "Understanding Electronic Incunabula: A Framework for Research on Electronic Records," American Archivist, volume 54 (Summer), pp. 334-354; Margarita Vazquez De Parga and Pedro Gonzalez, 1992. "Changing Technologies in European Archives," American Archivist, volume 55 (Winter), pp. 156-166; Frederick J. Stielow, 1992. "Archival Theory and the Preservation of Electronic Media: Opportunities and Standards Below the Cutting Edge," American Archivist, volume 55 (Spring), pp. 332-343; David Bearman, 1993. "The Implications of Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President for the Archival Management of Electronic Records," American Archivist, volume 56 (Fall), pp. 674-689; Thomas Elton Brown, 1993. "A Decade of Development: Educational Programs for Automated Records and Techniques Within the Society of American Archivists," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 410-423; Margaret Hedstrom, 1993. "Teaching Archivists About Electronic Records and Automated Techniques: A Needs Assessment," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 424-433; Richard M. Kesner, 1993. "Teaching Archivists About Information Technology Concepts: A Needs Assessment," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 434-443; Richard J. Cox, 1993. "The Roles of Graduate and Continuing Education Programs in Preparing Archivists in North America for the Information Age," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 444-457; Terry Eastwood, 1993. "Educating Archivists About Information Technology," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 458-466; Victoria Irons Walch and the Committee on Automated Records and Techniques, 1993. "Automated Records and Techniques Curriculum Development Project," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 468-505; Victoria Irons Walch, 1993. "Innovation Diffusion: Implications for the CART Curriculum," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 506-512; Linda J. Henry, 1993. "An Archival Retread in Electronic Records: Acquiring Computer Literacy," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 514-521; Richard M. Kesner, 1993. "Employing the Case Study Method in the Teaching of Automated Records and Techniques to Archivists," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 522-531; Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland, 1993. "From Education to Application and Back: Archival Literature and an Electronic Records Curriculum," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 532-544; Thomas J. Ruller, 1993. "A Review of Information Science and Computer Science Literature to Support Archival Work with Electronic Records," American Archivist, volume 56 (Summer), pp. 546-559; Sara J. Piasecki, 1995. "Legal Admissibility of Electronic Records as Evidence and Implications for Records Management," American Archivist, volume 58 (Winter), pp. 54-64; Peter M. H. Waters and Henk Nagelhout, 1995. "Revolution in Records: A Strategy for Information Resources Management and Records Management," American Archivist, volume 58 (Winter), pp. 74-83; Francis Blouin, 1996. "A Framework for a Consideration of Diplomatics in the Electronic Environment," American Archivist, volume 59 (Fall), pp. 466-479; Lee Stout, 1995. "The Role of University Archives in the Campus Information Environment," American Archivist, volume 58 (Spring), pp. 124-140; John McDonald, 1995. "Managing Information in an Office Systems Environment: The IMOSA Project," American Archivist, volume 58 (Spring), pp. 142-153; Richard M. Kesner, 1995. "Group Work, 'Groupware,' and the Transformation of Information Resource Management," American Archivist, volume 58 (Spring), pp. 154-169; Michael L. Miller, 1995. "Disc Players, the Records Manager/Archivist, and the Development of Optical Imaging Applications," American Archivist, volume 58 (Spring), pp. 170-180; Margaret O'Neil Adams, 1995. "Punch Card Records: Precursors of Electronic Records," American Archivist, volume 58 (Spring), pp. 182-201; Thomas Elton Brown, 1995. "The Freedom of Information Act in the Information Age: The Electronic Challenge to the People's Right to Know," American Archivist, volume 58 (Spring), pp. 202-211; Margaret Hedstrom, 1995. "Electronic Archives: Integrity and Access in the Network Environment," American Archivist, volume 58 (Summer), pp. 312-324; Lydia J. E. Reid, 1995. "Electronic Records Training: Suggestions for the Implementation of the CART Curriculum," American Archivist, volume 58 (Summer), pp. 326-340; William J. Mitchell, 1996. "Architectural Archives in the Digital Era," American Archivist, volume 59 (Spring), pp. 200-204; Roy Turnbaugh, 1997. "Information Technology, Records, and State Archives," American Archivist, volume 60 (Spring), pp. 184-200; Linda J. Henry, "Schellenberg in Cyberspace"; Richard M. Kesner, 1998. "Information Resource Management in the Electronic Workplace: A Personal Perspective on 'Archives in the Information Society,'" American Archivist, volume 61 (Spring), pp. 70-87; Philip C. Bantin, 1998. "Developing a Strategy for Managing Electronic Records: The Findings of the Indiana University Electronic Records Project," American Archivist, volume 61 (Fall), pp. 328-364; Steven Lubar, 1999. "Information Culture and the Archival Record," American Archivist, volume 62 (Spring), pp. 10-22; and, Philip C. Bantin, 1999. "The Indiana University Electronic Records Project Revisited," American Archivist, volume 62 (Spring), pp. 153-163.

The remaining articles examined in the other journals include Hugh A. Taylor, "Chip Monks at the Gate: The Impact of Technology on Archives, Libraries and the User," Archivaria, volume 33 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 173-180; Terry Cook, "Easy to Byte, Harder to Chew: The Second Generation of Electronic Records Archives," Archivaria, volume 33 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 202-216; David Bearman, 1992. "Documenting Documentation," Archivaria, volume 34 (Summer), pp. 33-49; David Bearman, 1993. "Record-Keeping Systems," Archivaria, volume 36 (Autumn), pp. 16-36; Charles M. Dollar, 1993. "Archivists and Records Managers in the Information Age," Archivaria, volume 36 (Autumn), pp. 37-52; Margaret Hedstrom, 1993. "Descriptive Practices for Electronic Records: Deciding What is Essential and Imagining What is Possible," Archivaria, volume 36 (Autumn), pp. 53-63; Candace Loewen, 1993. "The Control of Electronic Records Having Archival Value," Archivaria, volume 36 (Autumn), pp. 64-73; David A. Wallace, 1993. "Metadata and the Archival Management of Electronic Records: A Review," Archivaria, volume 36 (Autumn), pp. 87-110; Catherine Bailey, 1993. "Canadian Archivists Speak Out: Results of the Surveys Conducted by the ACA Select Committee on Electronic Records," Archivaria, volume 36 (Autumn), pp. 136-165; Hugh A. Taylor, 1993. "'The Valour and the Horror': Hypertext as History," Archivaria, volume 36 (Autumn), pp. 189-193; Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland and Greg Kinney, 1994. "Uses of Electronic Communication to Document an Academic Community: A Research Report," Archivaria, volume 38 (Fall), pp. 79-96; John McDonald, 1995. "Managing Records in the Modern Office: Taming the Wild Frontier," Archivaria, volume 39 (Spring), pp. 70-79; Michael Nelson, 1995. "Records in the Modern Workplace: Management Concerns," Archivaria, volume 39 (Spring), pp. 80-87; Jean E. Dryden, 1995. "Archival Description of Electronic Records: An Examination of Current Practices," Archivaria, volume 40 (Fall), pp. 99-108; Thomas Elton Brown, 1996. "Myth or Reality: Is There a Generation Gap Among Electronic Records Archivists?" Archivaria, volume 41 (Spring), pp. 234-243; Luciana Duranti and Heather MacNeil, 1996. "The Protection of the Integrity of Electronic Records: An Overview of the UBC-MAS Research Project," Archivaria, volume 42 (Fall), pp. 46-67; Wendy Duff, 1996. "Ensuring the Preservation of Reliable Evidence: A Research Project Funded by the NHPRC," Archivaria, volume 42 (Fall), pp. 28-45; Paul Marsden, 1997. "When is the Future? Comparative Notes on the Electronic Record-Keeping Projects of the University of Pittsburgh and the University of British Columbia," Archivaria, volume 43 (Spring), pp. 158-173; Margaret Hedstrom, 1997. "Building Record-Keeping Systems: Archivists Are Not Alone on the Wild Frontier," Archivaria, volume 44 (Fall), pp. 44-71; Shane Greenstein, 1990. "Tape Story Tapestry: Historical Research with Inaccessible Digital Information Technologies," Midwestern Archivist, volume 15, number 2, pp. 77-85; Nicholas J. Scalera, 1992. "Public-Key Encryption and the Clipper Chip: Implications for the Archival Administration of Electronic Records," Archival Issues, volume 17, number 1, pp. 65-78; Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland, 1992. "Archivy and the Computer: A Citation Analysis of North American Archival Periodical Literature," Archival Issues, volume 17, number 2, pp. 95-112; William Landis and Robert Royce, 1995. "Recommendations for an Electronic Records Management System: A Case Study of a Small Business," Archival Issues, volume 20, number 1, pp. 7-21; Ann Zimmerman, 1995. "Partnerships and Opportunities: The Archival Management of Geographic Information Systems," Archival Issues, volume 20, number 1, pp. 23-37; Anne Gilliland-Swetland, 1995. "Digital Communications: Documentary Opportunities Not to be Missed," Archival Issues, volume 20, number 1, pp. 39-50; Laurie B. Crum, 1995. "Digital Evolution: Changing Roles and Challenges for Archivists in the Age of Global Networking," Archival Issues, volume 20, number 1, pp. 51-63; Tom Hyry and Rachel Onuf, 1997. "The Personality of Electronic Records: The Impact of New Information Technology on Personal Papers," Archival Issues, volume 22, number 1, pp. 37-44; and, Michael E. Holland, 1990. "Adding Electronic Records to the Archival Menagerie: Appraisal Concerns and Cautions," Provenance (Spring), pp. 27-44.

23. Henry, "Schellenberg in Cyberspace," p. 322. In the citation analysis following in this essay, I have carefully eliminated all self-citation, so that the most cited authors fit that category because they are cited by others. The purpose of this essay was not to rebut the assertion that the "new paradigm" writers only cite themselves, so I have not broken down my citation study to deal with this. Anyone conducting an examination of researchers such as Margaret Hedstrom and Terry Cook will have revealed to them that they cite widely in and beyond the archival literature when they have the need (the topic dictates it) to do so. Those that argue the need for a slavish dependence on a pioneer like Schellenberg would seem to lessen their need to go beyond a small body of archival literature for any issue.

24. Here is a small sampling of such writings, all with important insights into records and recordkeeping - some even with discussions about technological issues: Timothy Garton Ash, 1997. The File: A Personal History. New York: Random House; Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia A. Huff, editors, 1996. Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women's Diaries. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press; E. Wayne Carp, 1998. Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; Janna Malamud Smith, 1997. Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley; Isabel Vincent, 1997. Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and the Pursuit of Justice. New York: William Morrow; Elizabeth Simpson, editor, 1997. The Spoils of War: World War II and Its Aftermath; The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property. New York: Abrams; Alexandra Johnson, 1998. The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life. New York: Anchor; and Athan G. Theoharis, editor, 1998. A Culture of Secrecy: The Government Versus the People's Right to Know. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas.

25. "Other" includes citations to other fields such as history, sociology, political science and so forth - but none representing more than a handful of citations in any one discipline.

26. What I mean is that there is a vast literature on electronic information technology with implications for ERM. For a sense of the nature of such writings, see my "Drawing Sea Serpents: The Publishing Wars on Personal Computing and the Information Age," First Monday, volume 3, number 5 (May 1998) at

27. Richard Moe and Carter Wilkie, 1997. Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl. New York: Holt, p. 64.

28. Moe and Wilkie, Changing Places, p. 137. We need to be careful in how we apply this. The same authors also note "To succeed, preservationists must adapt to the ways in which the market works. But the value of landmarks cannot be tabulated like cash flow. If America ever reaches the point where the preservation of its historic places can only be justified by economic alone, America will have sold its soul" (p. 260).

29. Frederick J. Stielow, 1992. "Archival Theory and the Preservation of Electronic Media: Opportunities and Standards Below the Cutting Edge," American Archivist, volume 55 (Spring), pp. 332-343 (quote p. 333).

30. Dennis Donoghue, The Practice of Reading. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, p. 122.

31. Victoria Irons Walch, 1998. Where History Begins: A Report on Historical Records Repositories in the United States. n.p.: Council of State Historical Records Coordinators, (May), tables C2b, I3a, K2a.

32. My knowledge about this state' archives and historical records repositories derives from my working, along with Professor Elizabeth Yakel, for the Pennsylvania State Historical Records Advisory Board in order to develop a long-range plan for the management of the state's records. For information about this project, refer to

33. Ira Penn, 1993. "Records Management: Still Hazy After All These Years," Records Management Quarterly, volume 27 (January), pp. 8, 20.

34. Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany, SUNY, 1998. Models for Action: Practical Approaches to Electronic Records Management & Preservation. Project Report 98-1 (July). Albany, N.Y.: Center for Technology in Government, pp. 1, 19, 47, 50, and 51. The report is also available at

35. Bantin, "Developing a Strategy," p. 337.

36. "Across the Abyss: How to Send Messages Over Millennia," The Economist (December 19, 1998-January 1, 1999), insert.

Editorial history

Paper received 29 November 1999; accepted for publication 27 December 1999

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Searching for Authority: Archivists and Electronic Records in the New World at the Fin-de-Siécle by Richard J. Cox
First Monday, volume 5, number 1 (January 2000),

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