Don’t Blame Poor Records Management On Overpreservation

By: Joshua Ranger
March 7, 2014

There’s been a lot of good discussion lately about the meaning of the word archive(s) and its use by those outside of the profession. Much of this discourse is focused on the relation of the issue to the profession, questioning what impact the broad (and what some might think as improper) application of the term(s) has on the public’s view of the role of archives and archivists.

Ultimately I think it’s not an issue we can get too worked up about, but rather something we can use to better understand and communicate that role. The salve to any potential consternation lies in some mix of establishing better channels of advocacy to the public and just accepting that language is the most unstable of mediums and cannot be controlled like so many vocabularies.

But, no! I cannot!

Actually, I’m fine with the variance of the term archive. Even though some of what people call an archive is not a professionally managed aggregation of unique or rare materials, I still feel that there is room to understand such collections and other amassments as a similar type of resource — a unit of material that can be used to educate, entertain, or otherwise inform on a specific topic or area — and that we can do better to help non-archivists apply at least some basic level of archival and information management practices to those collections. The problem isn’t so much someone calling their personal set of harddrives an archive, but if those materials have value, has the person instituted sufficient efforts to make the assets findable and useable into the future.

No, the word I’m cantankering about now is preservation, because all of a sudden we have this term “overpreserve” that is being bandied about in the non-archive world. The legal scholar William H.J. Hubbard recently published a survey report regarding the costs corporations incur retaining data, primarily for legal purposes (Preservation Cost Survey). This report stems from the impact on corporations of e-discovery processes and various federal court cases that have set precedents for the degree of electronic information that must be retained and delivered as evidence.

According to Hubbard’s survey, corporations are uncertain about how much data they have to retain or what would actually be legally applicable or meaningful in a court case, and therefore they are spending massive amounts of money to overpreserve data. It appears that around 2011 or 2012 this term was coined and has been used in legal journals and by lobbying groups to define a soundbite and push through their agenda elucidate the issue and communicate it to their core constituency.

hoover preserve

Google search results for “overpreserve”

Now, I don’t doubt that there is a problem here. It is onerous to store and maintain a large amount of records, especially if many of those may be of little importance or use. That is why in archives we have instituted practices around appraisal, selection, and deaccessioning, and why in records management there are similar processes such as retention schedules. It is also why in both areas we do things such as set submission policies, describe content, implement metadata standards, and other activities that help make materials findable. Preservation activities can become a part of this for records of long term value or for records that need work to maintain their accessibility. Whatever the case archival practices (ideally) make the core of our work — findability, usability, sustainability — easier and more efficient.

I have made a conscious effort above to use the term retain rather than preserve in discussing the report, because that is what these corporations are doing — retaining the data until the case has been resolved. If they were preserving it, they would be instituting a system of digital preservation that would benefit greatly from an archivist or records manager trained in that area (and they hopefully wouldn’t be keeping so much content on harddrives and other decentralized storage devices). Instead, all references are to legal and IT personnel preserving the records. To me this suggests that the problem is not overpreservation, or preservation in general, but poor records management policy development and enforcement, a poor understanding of search and retrieval, and the lack of utilizing applicable expertise. From my experience, what this leads to is costly and reactive approaches to collection/records management, rushed decision making, and time and effort wasted by using staff without the knowledge applicable to the situation.

And why should we care about the inefficiencies and waste of corporate entities? Well, this matters for at least two reasons. First, by appropriating the term preservation and morphing it into overpreservation, and then pushing that term out to the corporate world and (likely) politicians, it is a de facto attack on the preservation that archives and libraries must do. These corporations are essentially throwing up their hands and saying preservation (and digital files) are too complex and too expensive, and we need to cut as much of that expense out as we can. Agreed that archives cannot and should not preserve everything, but the appraisal and selection of what is preservation worthy to an archive is a much different picture than the length and effort of retention for corporate records. But as that concept of overpreservation seeps into the minds of those who hold the purse strings, standard preservation efforts, which can be expensive and time-consuming, yes, could become questioned and defunded even more.

The second reason is, hey, these jobs should be ours! I know it’s not a solution for the job market issues for archivists and librarians, but I think we have a major role to play in this area of records and information management based on our training and expertise. It’s not something for everyone, but it is a valid career path out of the MLIS. Our training in the area of digital collections management needs to be increased, but we also need to be advocating in the corporate and similar realms that our abilities will help them decrease risk, help decrease costs, and are a critical compliment to any contemporary IT department.

Dr. Hubbard and the Civil Justice Reform Group, your problem isn’t overpreservation. Your problem is inefficiency and not applying the right solution/approach to the problem (“Digital Media Collections Are an IT Problem But Not an IT Solution“). So, hey, give an archivist/librarian/records-manager a call. We’re professionals. We’re here to help.

Joshua Ranger