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Why librarians should know the basics about archives and records management

01 December 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Gus MacDonald

Managing records and archives is crucial for efficient, effective management of all organisations. It facilitates transparency and accountability and promotes security and privacy within legal parameters. It also ensures we have archives which document all aspects of public and private life past and present, which will be preserved into the future. More than that, it is a very rewarding task to assess the value of records, devise systems to access and protect them and to work closely with creators and users.

Whilst a qualified archivist and records manager should be in charge of managing recordkeeping programmes, many other people with different skill sets and qualifications get involved at some point in their working lives - and librarians are probably pulled into it more than anyone else. Here are 10 reasons for learning the basics:

1. You need to be able to articulate the differences between managing books and archives

Whilst there is a common skills set for archivists and librarians, there are also a few important differences in how we manage our collections. Most significant is the fact that archives are unique because only one record arises from an event, decision or transaction whilst usually there are many copies of books or periodicals. Another crucial difference is the way we catalogue or describe archives. Because they are unique we cannot share catalogue entries across different archives but have to create a unique description for each archive or constituent group of records. Also, the relationships between the records in an archive are important. We structure our description based on these relationships and never try to impose a classification scheme based on subjects or any other system we think makes sense. Doing so will only cause a lot more work (think of trying to classify a two-page letter according to subject and how much cross-referencing would be necessary). Moreover, it will destroy the integrity of the archive. If you cannot explain these fundamental differences to managers and other stakeholders you risk them not providing each discipline with the resources necessary to manage them properly.

2. Records are different from books and published information

Records, like archives, are unique, and they have inter-relationships that need to remain clear and intact. More than that records provide evidence for the history of the organisation, family or individual whilst books and information do not have that same connection with an event or transaction - they can be a person's opinion or a set of data which does not provide a reliable story.

3. To recognise the relationship between managing libraries and managing records

Many skills and aptitudes required to manage books and published information are equally useful in records and archives management. Books, periodicals, databases, websites, records, archives, these are all information and information professionals need to understand how information is created, what its value is, how to catalogue or describe it and how to ensure its physical protection and preservation for as long as it is needed. The basic understanding of how your type of information works will be transferable to other information management disciplines.

4. You may be the closest your organisation gets to a professional archivist/records manager

If an organisation does not understand its recordkeeping needs it will not be in a position to manage its records. Often it is the librarian who recognises the value of the records and the risks posed by poor recordkeeping practices. You will probably not want to manage the archives and records yourself but you will not be able to ignore the need for proper professional help and may well need to act as an advocate for this.

5. You may be required to recruit and/or manage an archivist/records manager

Similarly you may be in the position where, as the only or senior information professional in the organisation, you are advising on recruitment of an archivist or records manager. You may even find yourself managing one and you will need to have a basic understanding of the field of operation and the key principles and concepts. 

6. You may be part of a combined archives, records and library service

It is very fashionable these days to combine archives and libraries in the expectation that economies of scale will be realised on some of the common elements. Understanding where archivists are coming from will help to ensure such arrangements work well to the benefit of both archive and library collections.

7. You need to know how to manage your records

Everyone (except the occasional gardener or cleaner) either creates or receives records - libraries included. With your information management skills, a basic understanding of records management will ensure your records are impeccably managed. 

8. Special collections sometimes contain archives

It is not unusual for academic libraries to hold collections which contain archival material. If the integrity and value of the archives is to remain intact, someone on the team needs an understanding of how to look after them physically and how to document them according to archival principles.

9. It is good for your continuing professional development

CPD is an important aspect of managing your own career. It demonstrates your professionalism and ensures that your skills and expertise are current and meet the expectations of employers, colleagues and clients. An effective professional competency framework will include an understanding of the work of related professions.

10. It is fun and interesting! I need say no more.

Would you know what to do if you came across archives in your collections? 

About the author

Margaret Crockett is a qualified consultant in archives and records management with over 20 years of professional experience and is one of the two partners in the Archive-Skills Consultancy Ltd.

Published: 1 December 2015

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