Conceptual understandings of records

Records are variously seen as evidence, as artefacts, as documents, as sources of information and as representations of past events. They are created as a result of the actions of organisations and individuals, and their perceived relationship to those actions is a major determinant of the ways in which they are managed, the nature of the access that is granted to them, and their interpretation and exploitation by users. Although this has long been recognised, the nature of that relationship is still not fully understood. A deeper understanding of the meanings of records, and of the nexus between records and organisational systems, supports more effective ways of managing records and of presenting them to users.

Although the keeping of records is one of the oldest human activities, the archives and records management profession remains relatively small and archival science is still young as an academic discipline. Its key concepts and principles have been largely derived from the reflective experience of a small number of leading practitioners in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and to a lesser extent from a few cognate disciplines such as diplomatic (the study of documentary form), systems theory and information science. Ideas about the nature and characteristics of records and about appropriate methodologies for their management underpin archival work in the wider world, but many of them reflect perceptions of records as essentially analogue materials and arguably require revisiting in the digital era. It can also be argued that many of the concepts and principles of the discipline have not been subjected to adequate in-depth academic scrutiny or sufficiently exposed to wider intellectual discourse outside the archives and records management field. In recent years many of them have been deconstructed by archivists sympathetic to postmodernism, but with few exceptions postmodernist writers in the archival arena have generally sought to discredit existing ideas and approaches rather than propose workable alternatives.

In investigating concepts of records and recordkeeping, and perceived relationships between records and the actions of individuals and organisations, research at UCL:DIS sets out not merely to challenge and interrogate received ideas, but also to propose new ways of looking at archival concepts. It seeks approaches that offer flexibility in interpretation, a greater openness to intellectual discourse and debate outside the confines of archival science, and also a theoretical foundation for new practical endeavours in maintaining and using records in the digital environment. It builds on modes of thinking developed in other disciplines such as philosophy (especially speech act theory and aesthetics), cognitive psychology, management science and human-computer interaction.

Topics addressed in published work to date include understandings of the concept of ‘record’ and its relations to concepts of evidence, information, persistence and representation (Yeo, 2007); the application of prototype theory to conceptual understandings of records (Yeo, 2008); intersections between records, documents and data (Yeo, 2011); records as vehicles for speech acts (Yeo, 2010a); beliefs and assumptions about their uniqueness and significance (Yeo, 2010b); their identification and management at unitary and collective levels and the implications of this for their description and interpretation and for access by users (Yeo, 2012a and 2012b). The notion of records as representations is emerging as a foundation for thinking on all these topics and for continuing work.

Selected papers in this area:
Yeo, Geoffrey (2007), 'Concepts of Record (1): evidence, information and persistent representations', American Archivist, vol.70 no.2, pp.315-43 [Full text available here]
Yeo, Geoffrey (2008), 'Concepts of Record (2): prototypes and boundary objects', American Archivist, vol.71 no.1, pp.118-43 [Full text available here]
Yeo, Geoffrey (2010a), 'Representing the Act: records and speech act theory', Journal of the Society of Archivists, vol.31 no.2, pp.95-117
Yeo, Geoffrey (2010b), "Nothing Is the Same as Something Else": significant properties and notions of identity and originality', Archival Science, vol.10 no.2, pp.85-116 [Full text pre-print available here]
Yeo, Geoffrey (2011), 'Rising to the Level of a Record? Some thoughts on records and documents', Records Management Journal, vol.21 no.1, pp.8-27
Yeo, Geoffrey (2012a), 'The Conceptual Fonds and the Physical Collection', Archivaria, no.73, pp.43-80
Yeo, Geoffrey (2012b), 'Bringing Things Together: aggregate records in a digital age', Archivaria, no.74, pp.43-91

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