Should archival and recordkeeping practices be subsumed under the growing waves of information and data management? From an institutional perspective, the rebranding of library and archival schools as information schools and the refocusing of their curricula on the supposedly more encompassing category of “information” has been met with little resistance. Records, it is often argued, share with books and other cultural instruments their being vehicles for the transmission of information, the universal commodity of our modern culture. More than ever, this seems to be the case today, as many of those cultural vehicles are created and exchanged in the form of digital objects.
In Records, Information and Data: Exploring the Role of Record-Keeping in an Information Culture, archival scholar Geoffrey Yeo argues that, from a conceptual perspective, such a dilution of records and archives into the surging ocean of information (and its accompanying data deluge) is unwarranted. A senior research fellow in the Department of Information Studies at University College London, Yeo is author of two handbooks on records management: Managing Records with Elizabeth Shepherd (Facet Publishing, 2003) and Managing Records in Global Financial Markets with Lynn Coleman, Victoria Lemieux, and Rod Stone (Facet Publishing, 2011).
The present book draws on some of the ideas that Yeo has developed and published over the last decade, particularly his reflections on “Concepts of Record,”1 his use of speech theory to look at recordkeeping,2 and his views on key records notions such as identity and significance3 or the aggregation of records.4 In his publications, Yeo has adopted and introduced ideas and arguments from philosophy and other disciplines in a way that reminds me of how Chris Hurley reflected on some of the key terms and activities of the discipline during the 1990s.5
Yeo argues that substituting “information” for “records” comes with the very serious risk that we forget what is distinctive about records and why a need exists for records-specific practices that transcend the realm of information management. The first three chapters serve as preparation for Yeo's argument. Chapter 1, “The Making and Keeping of Records,” reviews from a historical perspective the main elements of record-making and record-keeping. It touches on key issues, from the roles of records, to the emergence of historical archives and modern records management, to postcustodialism and the records continuum model, ending with the introduction of electronic technologies.
The second chapter, “Thinking about Records and Archives,” examines the impact of the digital era on the world of records, focusing on the way digital technologies affect the achievement of the persistence and temporal integrity of records, while leaving the very need for records unchanged. Fluidity of use and interpretation, Yeo says, always characterized records and therefore are not specific to today's digital world. And, yet, a new way of conceptualizing records seems to have emerged and gained momentum in this context: the idea that records are to be understood as a subcategory of information and valued as informational assets.
This new approach to records, epitomized by the substitution of a discourse of information governance for the traditional one of records management, is examined in chapter 3, “Archivists, Records Managers and the Rise of Information.” Yeo describes how the rhetoric of information (and accompanying conceptual exercises such as the ideas of convergence and informational infrastructure) appears to be based on conflicting views about the relationships between records and information that, as he writes, “tend to be asserted rather than argued or analysed” (p. 77).
The second part of Yeo's argument is an analytic survey of the concepts of information (chapter 4, “Finding a Way through the Hall of Mirrors”) and data (chapter 5, “Records and Data”) as possible modernizing influences on the traditional concepts of records and archives. The concept of information is characterized by its abstractness and intangibility, traits that give a certain consistency to its underlying polysemy. Information appears to be many things in many contexts: it supposedly flows, can be stored and retrieved, and is a resource that can be extracted, managed as an asset, and risks becoming a liability if mismanaged. And, yet, while there are units of digital information (bits and bytes), no units of information are understood in the abstract. Information is like money. That is the abstract name we give to a medium of exchange; but what matters in the real world is not money but currencies, the concrete monetary systems used in particular countries.
Yeo argues that the definitional vagueness of “information,” which often goes unexplored, has allowed it to become the all-encompassing mantle under which the disciplines of records and archives have sought refuge of late. When expressed as data, information can be tabulated, analyzed, extracted, newly aggregated, and so on. And while the “science” in “information science” is almost as vague as that in “archival science,” “data science” seems to be the real deal, with algorithms and other such markers of a genuine science. With its associated set-theoretical atomism and its engineering toolkit of mining techniques, data are the perfect operative sidekicks to information's larger-than-life yet power-challenged superhero.
But, what about records? Can our understanding of records be liberated from the strictures of centuries-old conceptions? Can such an understanding be modernized without sacrificing its conceptual depth on the altar of the ethereal goddess of information, at the hands of the priesthood of data? Yeo tackles this task in chapter 6, “Representation, Performativity and Social Action,” where he brings to bear some of the ideas about records that he introduced in earlier publications, as mentioned.
Understanding records very generically as persistent representations of occurrents, Yeo emphasizes how they stand as potentially eternal reminders of temporally delimited phenomena. He argues that the connection between records and information consists in the latter being not an element of the former, but one of its possible affordances. Rather than being something contained in records, information is one among many things that can be produced through our interaction with records; that is, records can be informative, as much as they can be symbolic, evidentiary, memorial, and so on. Thus, records can re/present those acts and phenomena they record, without exhausting themselves in their informational potential.
Borrowing from the theory of speech acts developed by John Austin and John Searle, Yeo characterizes records as performative: they help us do a variety of things. Records are actions by other means, as much instruments as they are representations. But, perhaps as important, this framework allows Yeo to highlight the interactive and social dimension of records. Those things that records allow us to do, such as sustaining rights and obligations, constructing identities, establishing institutions, organizing relationships, or remembering shared experiences, are the threads that constitute the fabric of human sociality.
What, then, of the reduction of records to information? Are records (their making and their keeping) necessary? As long as we care for records beyond their reliability, to the extent that the values we see in them transcend their truth-value, and in the measure that we care for the context and not just the text, the answer has to be in the affirmative. Living in society means that we create, keep, and manage more than mere information; this, in turn, requires that we develop and follow specific procedures that go beyond those needed for the management of information.
I must confess I was quickly drawn to Yeo's perspective as developed in his articles on the nature of records and on their performative character, referenced earlier. I am partial to his style of borrowing from philosophy, anthropology, and other disciplines to inform his approach to records and archives. I also wholeheartedly agree with much of his analysis of the largely uncritical way in which vague concepts of information have been widely accepted as substitutes for older notions of records and archives. And, yet, I wonder if Yeo is not preaching to the already converted. I find the concluding chapters (chapter 7, “Managing Information or Managing Records?,” along with the conclusion proper) a little too general to really bring home the argument of the book, and I worry whether he missed the opportunity to make a more inclusive call to other scholars in the archival science community who may be more than sympathetic to his perspective (for instance, scholars such as Fiorella Foscarini and others who have adopted genre theory to interpret records as social action, a perspective I see as germane to Yeo's emphasis on performativity, but one wholly ignored in this book).
I am also a little conflicted about Yeo's use of the phrase “information culture,” which he defines as “a culture that valorizes conceptions of information and data, while apparently paying little heed to records” (p. 197). The term echoes a concept like “consumer culture” in seeking to identify a general malaise—in Yeo's case, the uncritical assumption that everything is information and information is everything. In principle, the argument of the book runs counter to existing uses of the phrase that locate it at the level of organizations, the assumption being that those who refer to “information culture” in an organizational setting wholeheartedly accept the idea that information trumps records. I believe this is not entirely the case. Archives and records scholars who focus their research on organizational information cultures may be relatively uncritical of “information” by omission, rather than because they blindly embrace the view criticized by Yeo. But, on the other hand, they also tend to understand “culture” in an almost anthropological sense (the constellation of practices, attitudes, and ideas that members of a collective use to make sense of their world), in contrast with Yeo's comparatively vague use of that concept.
These small issues aside, Yeo's book provides a lucid argument for the need for records managers and archivists to resist the song of the information sirens. Philosophically grounded and analytically clear, Records, Information and Data offers a view of records capable of acting as the foundation for a renewed archival discipline for the twenty-first century.
1Geoffrey Yeo, “Concepts of Record (1): Evidence, Information, and Persistent Representations,” American Archivist 70, no. 2 (2007): 315–43; Yeo, “Concepts of Record (2): Prototypes and Boundary Objects,” American Archivist 71, no. 1 (2008): 118–43.
2Geoffrey Yeo, “Representing the Act: Records and Speech Act Theory,” Journal of the Society of Archivists 31, no. 2 (2010): 95–117.
3Geoffrey Yeo, “‘Nothing Is the Same as Something Else’: Significant Properties and Notions of Identity and Originality,” Archival Science 10, no. 2 (2010): 85–116.
4Geoffrey Yeo, “The Conceptual Fonds and the Physical Collection,” Archivaria 73 (Spring 2012): 43–80; Yeo, “Bringing Things Together,” Archivaria 74 (Fall 2012): 43–91.
5See, for instance, Chris Hurley, “What, if Anything, Is a Function?,” Archives and Manuscripts 21 (1993): 208–20.