Conference Papers Online
Session 5: The Archival Control of Systems
Recordkeeping systems: wanted dead or alive
Manager, Government Recordkeeping
Archives Authority of New South Wales
I would like to start by expressing my thanks to Gavan
McCarthy and the other members of the Australian Science Archives Project
for giving me the opportunity to participate in this excellent program.
The title of this paper is whimsical, but it hints at
two of the themes that I wish to pursue:
that understanding recordkeeping systems is crucial to understanding
the records generated through them: as archivists, we want information
about those recordkeeping systems;
that, particularly in the electronic environment, archivists
need to be at least as concerned with live systems - documenting, and even
designing, them - as with dead systems.
Recordkeeping Systems in Conventional Archival Description
Describing the recordkeeping system as part of the context
of records has long been an accepted component archival practice. Conventionally,
however, the concept of a recordkeeping system that we have used for this
purpose has been limited to a group of related series used together in
their original context. The classic example of this concept of a recordkeeping
system is a correspondence file series, with a register and one or more
Certainly the recordkeeping system, thus understood, has
an important place in archival descriptive practices. It is mentioned frequently
in the writings of Peter Scott on the Australian series system. It provides
an important basis for identifying what is an agency and what is not an
agency under the series system, as seen in the former Australian Archives
definition: Agency - an administrative unit that is a recognisable
entity, generates records and has its own general recordkeeping system.
(Recently the Australian Archives, now the National Archives
of Australia, have adopted a definition placing less emphasis on the recordkeeping
system, but the concept is still there.)
This concept is also used as a primary basis for describing
the relationship between record series under the series system. Thus, for
example, the series description procedures in the CRS Manual mentions the
recordkeeping systems 24 times. (I have used Australian/National Archives
examples here, not to single them out, but because their practices are
widely known and followed by other Australian archivists and they have
been willing to make their procedures and related material accessible on
the World Wide Web.)
Despite the importance of the recordkeeping system in
conventional descriptive practice, it has not been adopted as a structural
element in archival control and description systems, that is, as an entity.
Thus, the CRS Manual describes the following entities:
It is a similar story with my own Tabularium system
and with ASAP's onQ ADS that has been described elsewhere in this
In his exposition of the series system (reference), Chris
Hurley has suggested that there are three options for building recordkeeping
systems into descriptive models:
In the conventional practice that I have described, we
have followed option 1. Hurley notes interest in option 2 when dealing
with electronic records.
I know of no archives institution that has incorporated
the recordkeeping systems as an entity in its control and description
system, that is, following option 3.
The Recordkeeping System in Modern Recordkeeping Theory and
We see little mention of recordkeeping systems in traditional
records management texts, nor in information management texts that purport
to cover records management. Yet, at the same time as archivists have been
reviewing the role of the recordkeeping system in descriptive practice,
recordkeeping systems have earned a prominent place in modern recordkeeping
theory and practice.
Why has this occurred? One reason has been a greater need
to make recordkeeping more systematic, especially in devolved or decentralised
organisations and in the electronic environment. Systematic recordkeeping
is widely recognised as a key support for accountability and, especially
in the public sector, a lack of systematic recordkeeping is a frequent
subject of criticism by royal commissions, Auditors-General and other accountability
watchdogs. As the Standard on Full and Accurate Records, developed by the
Archives Authority of New South Wales, notes, "Records that will meet business
needs, accountability requirements and other organisational needs cannot
be made, maintained or managed in the absence of system. Laissez faire
recordkeeping is inevitably poor recordkeeping" (Principle 3). In practice,
systematic recordkeeping depends on the effective operation of recordkeeping
Modern recordkeeping theory and practice have also taken
a more comprehensive view of what a recordkeeping system is than in the
past. As David Bearman has reminded us, recordkeeping systems are information
systems "organised to accomplish the specific functions of creating, storing
and accessing records for evidential purposes." (David Bearman, "Recordkeeping
Systems", Archivaria 36, 1993, p. 17) This understanding is reflected
in the definition of a recordkeeping system in the Australian Standard
on records management: Recordkeeping Systems - information systems
which capture, maintain and provide access to records over time. (AS 4390—1996:
Records Management, Part 1: General, Clause 4.20)
Importantly this concept is not confined to systems that
are designed primarily for keeping records. Information and communication
systems that support business processes are also recordkeeping systems,
if they capture, maintain and provide access to records as part of their
functionality. This is the case, for example, with transaction processing
systems and with database systems with audit trails built in. As recordkeeping
systems, these kinds of systems are of as vital interest to archivists
and records managers as systems designed specifically to keep records.
Importantly also, the focus in this concept is on the
processes of recordkeeping, not the products. This is reflected in the
definition of a recordkeeping system in the standard Australian text on
the practice of archives management, Keeping Archives: Recordkeeping
System - the principles, methods and processes devised for capturing,
arranging and maintaining the records of an agency or person.' (Judith
Ellis, ed., Keeping Archives, 2nd edn, Thorpe in association with
the Australian Society of Archivists, 1993, p. 477)
The notion of a recordkeeping system as merely a related
group of record series is clearly inadequate here. Computer science has
reminded us that a system has many elements: 'the interrelation of personnel,
procedure, hardware and software, which combine to accomplish a set of
The following graphic summarises the major stages in the
In stage (a) we identify and document the organisation's
role, purpose, organisational structure and legal, regulatory, business
and political environment. We also seek to identify and document critical
factors affecting recordkeeping.
In stage (b) we identify and document each business function,
activity and transaction, producing:
a hierarchical business classification scheme; and
an analysis of the flow of business processes and the transactions
comprising those processes.
In stage (c) we identify and document the requirements
for evidence associated with each business function, activity and transaction
and how each requirement may be satisfied through recordkeeping. These
requirements are called 'recordkeeping requirements' and their satisfaction
is the raison d'etre for recordkeeping activities and for the existence
of recordkeeping systems.
In stage (d) we identify and analyse existing recordkeeping
and other information systems used in or in conjunction with business processes,
measuring their performance against the recordkeeping requirements identified
in stage (c). To what extent do existing systems satisfy those recordkeeping
requirements? If there is a significant gap, we proceed to subsequent stages.
In stage (e), we identify and document possible strategies
for recordkeeping that might be built into a new recordkeeping system.
These strategies include:
using policies, procedures and practices to affect human
designing new systems that can help or automate recordkeeping
implementing systems in ways which satisfy a requirement;
adopting technological standards for record formats that
promote the longevity of technology dependent records.
Important factors in the choice of a mix of strategies
the degree of risk involved in failure to satisfy a recordkeeping
requirement within the relevant business function;
the existing systems environment; and
the corporate culture in which the strategy should succeed
(especially relevant when trying to influence behaviour).
In stage (f), we bring the chosen strategies together
into the design of the recordkeeping system in the broad sense described
previously and we document that design. We ensure that the design will
support business processes, rather than hinder them. If necessary, we redesign
existing business processes and systems, if these are a significant part
of the problem.
In some cases, we incorporate documentary products and
tools developed from work in the earlier stages into the design of the
system. An example is the records disposal schedule: we use those recordkeeping
requirements that relate to the retention of records to develop a disposal
schedule specifying how long the records that document particular business
functions and activities, or types of recurring transactions, need to be
kept for evidence of the activity:
In stage (g), we identify, document and use a suitable
mix of implementation strategies to implement the recordkeeping system
and integrate its operation with business processes and systems.
In stage (h), we collect information and assess the performance
of the recordkeeping system against the recordkeeping requirements identified
in stage (c), documenting the results. We initiate and document any corrective
action and set up an ongoing monitoring regime.
A key feature of each stage is to document it. What do
we end up with at the end of this process?
a range of environmental information from preliminary investigationp;
a business classification scheme;
a business process analysis;
a comprehensive set of recordkeeping requirements;
a gap analysis of existing systems against those requirements;
a documented selection of recordkeeping strategies;
a risk assessment of failure to satisfy recordkeeping requirements;
a range of forms of documentation of design processes;
implementation plans and reports;
assessments of performance; and
decisions and reports about corrective action.
In short, we end up with a great steaming pile of metadata
- documentation that tells us what the recordkeeping system was meant to
do, how it was to do it and how well it did it. We end up with a rich source
for the archival description of the recordkeeping system.
Now all we need is standards for using this metadata in
archival description . . .
Copyright David Roberts 1998