I’ve written in the past about the stack of old, bound editions of the magazine Punch that appear to be the closest my branch of the Ballantines have as a legacy to pass from generation to generation (if only I’d been part of the distilling branch of the family).

Whilst interesting, the archive is strangely unfulfilling; the content is dense and very much of the time. The occasional humorous cartoon intersperses editorial which is impregnable in the way in which it is stuck in the past. But the bit that I know I would have found much more interesting – the adverts – is no more. As was the practice at the time the adverts, which were printed on the front and rear pages of the magazine, we disposed before the “proper” content was bound into volumes. It’s the content that the future will want, not the nasty dirty matter of commercial messages.

How wrong. And something of which I’m reminded as I do a piece of work looking at archiving and records management in the digital era.

In the days before digital it was easy. Documents, physical things on paper or parchment, would be produced as the output of decisions and processes. Those would become records of note. Memos, letters and the like, particularly if they were from people of importance, would also probably end up in the archives. In relative terms the numbers of those things produced was small in comparison to today’s email.

Conversations between people would be minuted and stored, or not and would disappear into oblivion.

But today, in our digital realm where just about everything we do has the potential to be stored, the nature of what is a “record” becomes harder to define not because people can’t today make clean lines dividing between record or not, but because the decisions that we make today about what should be a record to be preserved for the future are almost certainly going to be wrong, but if we try to store everything we will drown in the volume of bilge. Where do document revisions sit? Where do we draw the lines around enterprise social networks and collaborative platforms, and what constitutes a record in those contexts?

What did records mean in the past? A set of minutes, for example, were never what actually happened in a meeting, but the agreed record of what happened – a very different thing indeed.

These aren’t questions of technology. They are questions of culture, process and meaning. Subjects of which technologists might not be the right people to ask…

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