Managing Electronic Records*


Rick Barry




Purpose – This article aims to review the book Managing Electronic Records edited by Julie McLeod and Catherine Hare, Facet Publishing, London, 2005, 216 pp. ISBN:  1-85604-550-1; £39.95, hardback.


Design/Methodology/Approach – The book is evaluated in the context of other related titles, the authors' and editors' aim for the text, the needs of professionals in the field and the reviewer's views on required content.


Findings – The reviewer concludes that the book is one of the very best collections on electronic records to have been published.


Originality/value – The article reviews this book within the context of other titles, thereby informing readers on the broader range of resources in this challenging area.


Keywords – Electronic records, Records management, Ethics, Standards, Digital storage, Preservation, Implementation, Case studies


Paper type – Literature review


* This paper is a pre-publication version of a paper that was published in the Records Management Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2006;  Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bradford, UK, pp. 57-66, and is published here with the kind permission of the publisher.


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About Managing Electronic Records


The Washington Post has used a catchy promotional slogan: "If you don't get it, you don't get it." It is not much of an exaggeration to borrow this as an aphorism to describe Managing Electronic Records ("this book") McLeod and Hare's (Eds.) with a bevy of first-class, highly-experienced, chapter authors whose names will be familiar to most professionals who keep up internationally in the field of electronic records management. It is one of the very best collections and presentations on electronic records that I've seen put together. It is an important one to talk about. It is apparent from reading this book that the editors designed it to lead us to that conclusion. It happened for good reasons.


  • There is an obvious understanding by the editors of the perplexing issues surrounding electronic records in a very current sense and they were able to formulate those issues in a vision and framework for the book.
  • They knew what and where the best resource pools were in these issue areas and had the ability to draw authors from those pools. The editors rounded up an outstanding team of authors who are international (from five continents), interdisciplinary (knowledge and information management, ARM, computer, information and library sciences, IT, human resources) and inter-perspective (public-private sector, theorist-educator-practitioner, manager-consultant). Chapter authors An, Cumming, Ellis, Fuzeau, Harris, Hofman, Laeven, Marciano, McDonald, Moore, Ryan and Stephens cut a wide swath in the field from strategy to implementation. Hare and McLeod have done not only an excellent orchestral job in getting this book together, but are also important authors imbuing the book with insights of their own.
  • The editors know that there are other critical aspects of electronic records that don't neatly fit into their classification scheme—management of electronic records at the strategic, tactical and operational levels. They also understand that we need to go beyond the regime and system planning and implementation perspectives in making electronic records a reality. Thus, to make it more than a "How-To" guide, as good a job as it does on that score, McLeod and Hare didn't shy away from including excellent chapters on R&D and ethics. Along with the chapters supporting the book's classification scheme, these chapters fit into the broader framework and vision that they had for the book—what they call the "long game" view.


No book is without some weak spots. I will mention a few along the way. However, the bottom line is that this book is a 'get-er,' 'save-er' 'consume-er' and, in some ways, even a 'model-er' for future books on the subject as the inevitable forces of change cause us to revisit newer and better ways to manage electronic records. Let's talk about the book in terms of its content, context and structure, which ought to be a familiar and comfortable way for ARM professionals to think about it.




Evaluating the content of a book may be done in quite a few different ways. One such way is to ask and seek answers to leading questions. For example: how did it stacks up with competition with similar titles; what did the authors (or editors) mean or promise to include; what are professionals in the field likely to want to see (although the most valuable literature often delivers important messages to the readers that they don't expect or want to see or know or care much about); and what would a reviewer want to have included in a book on this subject? I will comment on all the above aspects to one degree or another. I won't undertake the systematic comparative analysis that would be necessary to answer the first question. This is not a literature review, even on this particular title. Nonetheless, any reviewer's reactions to one book are bound to be influenced by others on the subject. I'm no exception, and that will come through intentionally or not.


How the book stacks up against the editors' vision for it may not be the most important approach, but it is probably the fairest. From a marketing point of view, taking the readership perspective may be the most important. The trick, of course, is for authors to sufficiently well understand the marketplace that their vision and delivery for the book captures and addresses market needs. I'll mention some topics that I consider important in managing electronic records, but those should be considered principally as provocations for discussion and for future writers rather than criticisms of this book. (If I were so smart, why didn't I write the book myself?) I therefore prefer to devote most time on the editors' and readers perspectives.


What did the editors set out to do? In their own words, in the book's Preface, they took as for their challenge the proposition: "managing electronic records involves multiple roles, an extensive range of aspects covering the organizational, technical and legal issues, and ongoing exploration and investigation to achieve and share greater effectiveness and efficiency. To be successful, these all have to come together in holistic solutions, at the strategic and operational levels."  In their wrap in the final chapter, they further elaborate these challenges: 

  • objects that are intangible in an environment that is virtual and dynamic;
  • tools and solutions that are dynamic and constantly evolving; and
  • tools that at best do not give priority to recordkeeping and at worst create havoc.


In the last chapter, the editors turn authors and provide an excellent cross-walk between the individual chapters using a strategic-tactical-operational construct. They also inform us on topics not easily considered in that construct—ethics and R&D—and show how these elements are needed to complete the framework needed to play the long-game and win at it. Finally, they speak to futures.


The editors did broadly fulfill their promise as complex and multi-dimensional as the vision for the book was described. This was in no small way because of the tying up in the final chapter. At the same time, the chapters are so rich in content and so well written that the book would be a keeper simply as a collection of winning essays on electronic records.


What would likely readers expect? How do I know this? I don't, but I will postulate and hopefully stimulate further discussion by touching on two ways for thinking about this that may lead to conclusions about how readers will set their own expectations for this book—a) a sampling of other books with similar titles on the broad aspects of managing electronic records; and b) an indicative list of findings that recently have been identified and published in a U.S. federal interagency study on barriers to effective electronic records and the findings of a survey of U.S. and international users' attitudes about that study.


A few of the recent offerings on electronic record include: Effective Approaches for Managing Electronic Records and Archives, Bruce W. Dearstyne, Ed., 2002; Managing Electronic Records,  3rd Ed., by William Saffady, 2002; Thirty Years of Electronic Records, by Bruce I. Ambacher, 2003; Records Management: Planning for the Electronic Records Archives Has Improved, by Linda D. Koonz, 2004; and, 'fast-backwarding',  Managing Electronic Records: Issues and Guidelines, 1990, one of the first international, interdisciplinary studies of this subject, produced by the UN Technical Panel on Electronic Records (1987-1989), which I had the honor of chairing and which gave me my own baptism of fire in electronic records. Anyone who has read one or more of these books may come to this one with the expectation of finding similar coverage. Hopefully they will also be looking for this book to fill in gaps in their earlier readings. I think they will discover that it does add some valuable new information, especially in the areas of human factors and organizational culture (Laeven, Fuzeau, Ellis); stakeholder building (An, Ellis); digital preservation (Marciano and Moore, Hofman, Ryan); standards (Hofman, Cumming, An); legal matters (Stephens, Ryan); R&D (An, Ryan; ethics and societal issues (Harris) and most especially post-implementation lessons learned from installed electronic records systems (Fuzeau, Ellis). Excellent overarching presentations that cover several of these topics are presented in McDonald's introductory chapter and Laeven's "Competencies" chapter. Of course, they were interwoven and related to one another by McLeod and Hare in the final chapter.


One example of an external view to consider what readers might consider important and thus might look for in a book on this subject may be found in a recent survey I conducted on barriers to effective electronic records that was produced by the Electronic Records Policy Working Group (ERPWG) an interagency group in the US government. Despite its orientation, its findings and recommendations were found to be highly relevant to survey respondents, including in other levels of government, in the private sector and academia as well as internationally. (See survey results.) Among the topics that were high on the list of a high percentage of survey respondents internationally were:

  • Records and information not managed as agency business assets;
  • Records management not viewed as critical to agency mission or incorporated into automated business processes in a timely manner;
  • Marginal support for records management has led to a lack of training, tools, and guidance for all staff;
  • Poor integration of records management and IT disciplines;
  • Need for greater and more effective leadership and clear records management guidance;
  • Need to integrate recordkeeping into Enterprise Architecture;
  • Standards to include recordkeeping compliance in audits and inspector general reports.


One might infer that these are not only seen as issues, but that readers would like to know more than they are barriers. Why are they barriers, and what can be done to overcome them? On most of these accounts, this book hits the mark with at least identification of the issue if not remedial suggestions. It is noteworthy that several of these concerns emerged as issues in the brilliantly done case studies, reinforcing their importance.




In the area of architecture, more is needed in our professional literature. In the first chapter, McDonald speaks to "records architecture" independently but preferably as integral to a broader enterprise information management and IT architecture. I'm not so sure of the value of an independent records architecture, but certainly records management must be tightly integrated into the enterprise information and IT architecture to make for the implementation of a complete, effective and efficient electronic records system. Trying to deal with records independently may operate in the other direction. In the last chapter, McLeod and Hare stress the importance of architecture and infrastructure at the tactical level. If those chapters constitute the bread in this meal, there is little on architecture in the sandwich between the slices. Exceptions to this appear, if obliquely, in Cumming's discussion of metadata and business processes and in Ryan's observation that the digital preservation function needs to be linked to the strategic business aims of the organization. Indeed it does, as do other key recordkeeping functions, not the least of which is electronic records capture. Architecture is about tightly knitting organizational assets, especially information and technology, to business processes—most especially where business processes are automated. We need to generate literature that more rigorously addresses architecture on three kinds and levels: enterprise architecture, information architecture and technology architecture and how recordkeeping fits in. Leading recent books in the area of information architecture don't mention technology architecture and vice versa. Neither mentions recordkeeping as a service within the architectures. Yet all relate to an enterprise model or architecture.


Standards for Auditing and Compliance


The issue of standards for incorporating recordkeeping compliance into the audit process was considered crucial by 79% of the above-mentioned survey. Hofman devotes a welcomed section to this subject in his discussion of compliance, but much more is needed as increasingly tight laws and regulations that govern various business sectors (finance, pharmaceuticals, food, personal-health information, etc.) that may be national in their origin but are global in their impact since they apply to any organization wishing to do business in such countries. These events require recordkeeping to be seen in the context of special laws and regulations. Global companies failing to take account of such requirements in all countries where they wish to operate do so at considerable risk.




There are few organizations that have implemented electronic records systems, and fewer references to them in books and even fewer appearances of the term "implementation" in indexes. This book stands out in this respect. With two outstanding chapters (10 (Fuzeau) and 11 (Ellis)) devoted to implementation case studies, two others, chapters (2 (Hofman) and 3 (Cumming)), with additional insights in major sections on implementation and another citation on the term in the index, there are some 29 pages citing the term at some level in the index.


In his review of Bruce Dearstyne's Effective Approaches for Managing Electronic Records and Archives, Matthew Veatch said, "[A]s authors in this excellent new collection of essays make clear, information professionals have developed over the past decade a variety of effective, context-sensitive electronic records management strategies." (See TOC, book TOC, excerpt and review.) What we have not done so well with is implementing those strategies. Some of the finest writers about electronic records strategy are academics, especially those leading or teaching graduate ARM programs. While many universities have implemented or are in the process of implementing "institutional repository systems," using such systems as DSpace or Fedora to digitally manage faculty knowledgebases, these systems do not include the more rigorous functionality required for trustworthy electronic recordkeeping. Yet, few if any universities have actually implemented systems to manage their own university records, except on a very limited basis in support of single business functions or processes. The fact that few university archivists are involved in teaching programs doesn't minimize that stark reality.


Despite almost universal implementations of e-government applications at all levels of government, government bodies are only slowly moving in the direction of actually implementing electronic records systems. There are case studies of implemented systems as part of the InterPARES project. Important as they are, most of these are special-purpose e-government, photo, GIS applications as distinct from enterprise ER systems. Local governments seem to be ahead of other levels of government. Several private-sector organizations have implemented electronic records systems, some using enterprise content management approaches. Many of them are unwilling to share this "competitive information," an interesting commentary on the implied importance of electronic records in the private sector. The bottom line is a dearth of completed implementations and related case studies from which to draw models and lessons learned to help stimulate additional implementations. Not surprisingly, a posting I made to several ARM professional discussion lists internationally in connection with this review created enormous interest. At time of this writing, within three days after my original posting, there were over 50 on- and off-list communications responding to this thread about the high level of importance practitioners place on obtaining more information on actual implementation assessments and the lessons discovered. This book makes a considerable, considerably important and timely contribution to the literature in this area that many professionals are obviously starving for.


Ethics (and Society)


Another salutary contribution of this book is its inclusion of ethics at the chapter level. As noted earlier, the 'long-game' vision the editors had included "vision and leadership, awareness and understanding, the environment and architecture, technical solutions, people issues and the things to be done." For the Harris chapter on ethics, I would submit "people and societal issues, as in fact the editors note as one of Harris' key messages. It is not only true in this case, but Harris' discussion is an important addition to a book that is not specifically on the subject of ethics and societal issues. Ethical and societal issues are subjects typically missing in ARM practice-oriented books, professional conferences and course outlines that aren't dedicated to ethics and society. Not everyone who goes for practice-based books on ARM in general or electronic records in particular is going to go for books focusing on ethics or society. Many may not readily see the relationship of ethics to ARM or electronic records. Moreover, ARM professionals tend to take the societal impact of what they do for granted or to be presumed as important and look at such issues and cases primarily from a personal perspective to the exclusion of broader societal perspectives. According to a "Report on the Society and Archives Survey" (by this author), most ARM professionals see a near total lack of understanding on the part of society of the importance of recordkeeping and the special demands of electronic records. Thus, where the subject is treated alongside other aspects of recordkeeping in more than a passing manner, as it certainly is by Harris in this book, it deserves to be noted.


As for topics I would be looking for in a book with this title, most of them are there, including the case studies, Hofman's presentation on standards and Marciano and Moore's on preservation. I've read some of their San Diego Supercomputer/NARA technical papers on very long-term, persistent digital archives and was pleased to see how skillfully they crafted this presentation for a non-technical audience. A topic that I would have liked to have seen more coverage on, beyond the reference to PDF/A[1] in the excellent piece by Hofman, is long-term access and understandability of electronic records using "readers" that are designed to meet open standards (such as ISO-19005-PDF-A and OpenReader). I also share the views that I frequently hear from clients that much more is needed in the literature about ways for dealing with specific recordmaking technologies that are the bane of most ARM professionals. These include legacy "stovepipe" systems, email systems, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, and newer forms of business electronic records such as instant messages, Websites and blogs.


Bottom Line


Does Managing Electronic Records deliver what one might expect from the title? In the main it does, and better than others in many ways.




The editors do an excellent job bringing out the relationship of chapters to one another and to their strategy-tactics-operations construct. They also make the chapter links to major cross-cutting electronic records issue areas such as standards, leadership, stakeholder building, and business systems analysis. I believe McDonald is the only other author who makes reference to other chapters in his presentation. ARM professionals should be good at context, beyond talking about metadata and archival description. One might hope for more contextual linking within chapters to others, but that may be asking too much in light of the difficulties of orchestrating the editing of a book like this.


The editors make another excellent contextual observation when they speak to the use of language in the book when, in the Preface, they talk about the differences in the use of such fundamental terms as "recordkeeping" and "records management." In Australia, the former term is the more inclusive and embraces the latter, which is seen not to include archives management. In the US and some other countries, it is the opposite. Perhaps it is because I feel that there is too much separation between archives and records management functions and professional organizations that is implied in the term "records management," I come down as the editors do with the Australian formulation and logic. Unfortunately, which is not mentioned in the book, the negotiating on the verbiage during drafting of ISO 15489 resulted in the adoption of "records management" as the all inclusive term, sadly in my opinion. The result was that "recordkeeping," as widely as the term is used internationally, appears nowhere in ISO 15489. This is not the venue for going into the reasons for this, but I hope as more countries gain more knowledge and experience with the Australian approach, ISO 15489 may be changed. Perhaps this observation by the editors in this book, though lightly treated, will help to draw attention to this matter as more than simply reviving the medieval debate on how many angels can dance on the point of a needle. It is really about how we (mis)communicate with one another in the most elemental of ways.    


Structure (aka, user friendliness)


ARM professionals place more importance on document structure than most people. It is regarded as an essential feature of records. For some of the same reasons, and more, structure is a most important feature of professional and technical books. It may not be as important as their content, but it is in the sense that it is what makes their content usable and hopefully useful. This is because such books are not typically read in serial form from beginning to end, as most novels are. They may be scanned that way to give professionals a good idea of their scope and coverage, but mainly for future reference purposes. However, a principal use of such books is as reference resources. Someone wants to focus in a particular work, teaching or research situation on metadata, or preservation, or standards, or case examples of these things. They want to be able to pick up the books they know address their topic and find quite specific information in a timely manner without reading the whole thing from beginning to end again. The book's structure allows them to do that—well or poorly. It provides what we might call navigation or finding aids and more generally its user friendliness. We know it when it is missing or poorly provided.


Elements of structure that authors may employ to help make their books as user friendly as possible include: table of contents, (high-level or detailed); chapter groupings under super-group headings or parts, an index, footnotes, a bibliography or reference list, and a study guide. A book may have many or all of these things and still not succeed in achieving, as a whole, a generally user friendly product; because it is possible and not uncommon for these things to be done poorly.


TOC, chapter groupings


Particularly because the mapping of chapters in this book is mainly addressed in the final chapter, it would have been helpful for the table of contents to attempt to group chapters according to their place in the strategic-tactical-operational framework with the R&D and Ethics chapters as peers to those framework sections. It wouldn't be perfect because of the cross-cutting nature of some of the chapters, but it might help the reader to make a decision to buy and read or not.




The index of a book that is going to be used for quick reference is a very important aspect of book structures its own right. It is even more important with an unstructured TOC such as this book has. This makes it a critical component of the book's success or lack thereof. Yet, index creation is often done by the publisher with little input from authors. When the index is not up to par, it is very evident to the reader. This book does about par with its index in very simple terms of the ratio of index pages to substantive pages expressed as a percentage. Using this measure, its index ratio is 7:193 or about 3.6%. This compares on par with Kahn and Blair's Information Nation Warrior: Information Management Compliance (2005), 8:220 or 3.6%; and more favorably with Dearstyne's Effective Approaches for Managing Electronic Records and Archives (2002), 2:160 or 1.3%.  It compares less favorably with Cox and Wallace's Archives and the Public Good (2002), 14: 317 or 4.4%. Contrasting from another field, Thomas Erl's Service-Oriented-Architecture: Concepts, Technology, and Design (2005), has a ratio of 34:713 or 5%, and that book has a 16-page, four-tiered, highly structured TOC that makes it easy to find things. That book was written by one author, even with research inputs from others; but it is clear that the author devoted a considerable amount of time and thought to the TOC and index.


I observed numerous occasions where topics were covered in the text but not in the index. For example the term "architecture" appears once in the index but in at least five places in the text that I observed. Similarly, Harris speaks to many subjects other than ethics, but suffers in the index with 20 references classified in two index terms: "ethics" and "South Africa." FOI is discussed in at least two chapters, but does not appear in the index. On the plus side, there is good cross referencing of some index terms, e.g., eight standards are listed by their number or short name (ISO 15489, DoD 5915.2, Dublin Core, CORBIT, etc.) but are also indexed according to the subject of the standard, e.g., records management, metadata, audit and certification.


Citations and Bibliographies


The editors and other authors provide a rich set of references cited in the chapter texts. The editors offer a very innovative approach in providing URL references in the book that I have not observed before. To save readers having to retype the Website addresses quoted in the text, a complete list of URLs is available on a companion website to the book.


The idea is exceptionally good and provides a considerable service for readers and an innovative integration of print and Web media. It will become an even greater and more useful innovation if the editors make arrangements to regularly test the URLs to ensure that the links remain hot and to update them when they change or disappear. It might be wise to place this page on a university or other Website. I do not have experience with Facet Publishing but, from experience with other publishers, I know that their own pages are subject to unannounced URL changes and page deletions.


For the best reading experience, recognizing that many will not read this book in a single sitting—I didn't say it was like a John Grisham or Alexander McCall Smith novel after all—I recommend reading the Preface and Chapter 12 first, followed by McDonald and Laeven before proceeding to the other chapters. This isn't a comment on the best chapters. If it were, Chapters 10 and 11 and others would be high on the list. Rather it is my opinion on the best sequence of chapter reading. Chapter 12 is logically and very appropriately placed where it is in the book as an excellent wrap, much as might be done if these were papers presented at a conference. However, especially for the uninitiated, it will ease the reading experience of other chapters if Chapter 12 is read early on.


While there is much gnashing of teeth about the low priority, low resourcing and low status of the ARM functions in organizations, there is little ownership of why that is so. Much of it is due to the fact that professionals in the ARM field have been singularly unsuccessful in communicating adequately to their own executives about what they do and its importance. Too much is said about "the mandate" for ARM and too little about the business case for it. This book offers some excellent communications that could be effectively used as a short-term way of addressing that problem. My guess is that if executives read even the Preface and Chapter 12, they would soon find themselves doing some non-linear dipping into the other chapters. They might even steal themselves ultimately to read the whole book given that one of its other attractions is that it comes in under 200 pages—quite an achievement in itself for the level and quality of content it contains.





[1] As Hofman noted, an ISO Portable Document Format-Archives (PDF/A) standard was in preparation at the time of writing of this book. It has now been published as ISO-19005-1. Information on the open standard, OpenReader, may be found on the OpenReader Consortium, of which the reviewer is a cofounder.