Foreign Affairs

Conference on the Power of Free Inquiry and Cold War International History



Session III

Some Thoughts on Central Files, Electronic Records, and Appraisal

by Michael Miller

Good afternoon, everybody. I recognize my responsibility as the last official paper before everybody goes home, and I will do my best. That was an extremely interesting presentation on the photography of the Cold War period. I'm a historian by training, but I'm an archivist and records manager by occupation. As director of the Modern Records Program I direct the staff that will go out and select the records that you and your successors will be using 20 to 30 years from now. The people who go out and pick the next generation of still photographs records of the Cold War.

My area of professional interest is appraisal, the selection of records for archival preservation, and also electronic records. So what do I have to say to you, since you're specialists in an area totally different from mine? Something, I hope, about how records that you will be using in the future will differ from those that you have used in the past, and how this may or may not concern you. I want to use the brief time I have today to talk about the decline of what is called the central file one of those ideas in records management from the 50s and 60s why that decline took place, and the impact it may or may not have on what archival records are available in the future.

I'm currently reading, as it happens, a book on the Cold War, and how its historians are obviously still discussing its origins. How much easier it is for us to think about the origins of the Cold War, something that people recognize was happening as it was happening, really, how much easier it is to document that because people had that understanding at the time. I wonder what we will be able to say 30 years from now about the origins of the end of the Cold War something that not a whole lot of people were looking for at the time at which it was taking place. Where will historians go to find the sources that will help them explain the collapse of the Soviet Union? Or actually will historians then be looking for the origins of something else the reemergence of Russia, the dominance of China? Whatever may be taking place 30 years from now. Choosing records that will help document any or all of these opportunities is one of the responsibilities of my program.

Therefore, what I want to do today is pull together essentially four strands, briefly: the central file and its place in records management, why records are created in the first place, the change of the modern office and its impact on record keeping, and how that will affect the selection of records that historians will eventually have. Before I launch into that I want to express my appreciation to David Langbart of my staff who provided a lot of information for me and a lot of specific examples.

The central file. What was, or is, the central file? In my view, it's the managed filing of all records that fit into a certain organizational profile. All the final correspondence in or out of an agency, all the final case files, all of the telegrams in and out of the State Department, the electronic system that Mark Conrad spoke about. The role of the central file was to be the organizational memory and documentation of organizational activity. It was the managed repository of all of the records needed to operate the organization, or at least its most important functions.

Its existence depended on four specific things: a relatively standard set of functions communications between the State Department and embassies around the world for example or a very specific hierarchy; sufficient staff to organize, index, and file the records; sufficient benefit or pain on the part of the employees to make sure that everybody complied; and finally sufficient security to ensure that the records once committed to the central file could actually be found again. The benefits of central filing were organizational control, common access, retrievability of records, and institutional memory. The problems were inconvenience to staff, high overhead, and lack of flexibility. In effect, the central file room was a good solution to the basic problems posed by the growing complexity of the mass of paperwork in government in an age before the advent of computers.

There were both good and bad aspects of the central file, both arising from its fundamental character and the temper of its time. Central filing arose in a time of rampant paperwork, but without the benefit (or curse) of the photocopying machine. A time when documents were often unique, and document loss a constant fear. Therefore, in self defense, central files were closely managed and tightly controlled. In order to allow one to find and retrieve documents there were extensive indexes. Records managers developed elaborate filing and cross-filing schemes to enable the organization to retrieve the exact document or documents staff needed. In effect, the records were a reflection of the bureaucracy that spawned them human-labor-intensive institutions already trying to deal with a "paper glut."

Depending on how they are set up, central files can be a boon to researchers because they allow for the location and retrieval of documents on a reliable basis. The problem frequently is that central files tend to maintain records that meet their criteria for admission. On one hand, that eliminates a lot of chaff from the files, but can also result in files that are bereft of any lively documentation. As one researcher once told me, "federal records are boring because they read like government documents." There is little interesting stuff in there, because the interesting stuff is excluded from the file because it's controversial. The more tightly controlled the central file, the more tightly it is oriented towards the final result, the less of the interesting material you may in fact find.

Before launching into a discussion of the demise of the central file, let's look briefly at why records are created. Records are created for a number of reasons, three in particular. First, you need them to do business something needs to be done. You need to buy groceries, hire a staff person, or declare war. Some kind of documentation is needed or it doesn't happen. So you create the necessary documentation, you have records, and you get something done.

The second reason you create records is because records are an expected part of the transaction, and there are expectations as to what the documentation looks like. The expectation may come from your boss, the other party in a business transaction, an oversight body, or your co-workers. In any case, there is somebody who expects that you will make a record documenting what you have done. You expect a receipt from your automatic teller machine. As an adjunct at the University of Maryland I submit the grade sheet to the University, and it is the signed grade sheet that effects my students getting grades. However, students also expect they will receive notification of the grades, and therefore a second type record is created. In another example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for which I used to work, created an administrative record to support their actions in cleaning up toxic waste sites. The records were very complete because toxic waste site cleanups frequently ended up in court. However, the law requires that EPA provide an indexed copy of the record at or near the site for public inspection. So EPA went to the added expense and effort of creating a record with a complete index. That's because it was required and expected.

The third reason to create a record is the one that is becoming, I think, more prevalent in many ways. That is you create a record to memorialize an action. After the fact, you create the record, and it becomes a record of what was agreed to or what at least you say happened. Minutes of meetings are a good example of a document that serves as the official record of what happened. In many ways, this type of activity is known, in government circles anyway, as CYA. If an organization is going to make an action based on a decision that a group reached, it is handy to have an account that all agreed to and what exactly everyone said. Those of use who have reviewed minutes of meetings know that the minutes are not necessarily the most reliable record of what actually took place they're what everybody agrees took place. Neither is the old bureaucratic favorite the memo for record, the memo to file which is one person's rendering of what took place. Having no purpose other than to memorialize an event, this type of record can frequently become a sterile and unreliable source. How valuable a record of what took place are progress reports on projects, or monthly activity reports? To the extent the answer is "not very," the reason is that they exist only for the purpose of defending the record of the writer.

It's my contention that the well-organized central file is disappearing, for two basic reasons. The first reason concerns records creation, and the second concerns the management of those records. In the area of records creation, the situation is relatively simple. The three purposes for creating records discussed above are breaking down (the third one, the CYA type thing, perhaps less so than the others). Do we create records to do business to the same extent we used to? Now that there are so many alternatives to paperwork to get business done, much of the business isn't actually documented. Much of the work in the modern office is done via telephone, meetings, and the ubiquitous e-mail. Nor is there the expectation that records will be made of every meeting or every telephone call. In many agencies, the employee has considerable autonomy and makes the documentation he or she needs to get along. Executives in flattened organizations have no time to require documentation as part of activities, records are created primarily for oversight and audit rather than to accomplish work. But it's the records that you create to get the work done that are actually the most reliable, I think, in the long term. The sorts of things that were in Nick's presentation about, "These are the instructions to the photographer about what the photographer is supposed to do how to take the picture." That's where the real meat is. That probably doesn't show up in their quarterly reports to their higher-ups.

While many plan to create proper documentation once the work is finished, there is rarely time after the fact. Changing patterns of work are another variant to records creation. When organizational structures, tasks, and procedures change frequently, it upsets the regularity of work, upon which regular and consistent documentation depends. Finally, as employees in organizations shift frequently, the need for the organizational memory that records provide is not readily identified. If you look at the places where there is good record-keeping, generally it is in agencies that consciously live and die by their records. The intelligence community comes to mind, as do agencies that frequently are involved in litigation. But even in these organizations, the filing is generally specific to a single activity, such as regulatory development or toxic waste cleanup, or specific operations. Record-keeping is not something that is coordinated and brought together in a central file.

As a result, organizations, as a result, are ending up with a records mish-mash. Frequently, records relating to repetitive transactions for which there are regular audit cycles, are well-maintained. Examples would include health claims, procurement purchases, time and attendance records, and other records that are mission support rather than mission critical. The problem for many historians is that these are not the records they are most interested in. The mission critical work is frequently handled by small groups, teams, or individuals, who are flexible and fluid in organization, brought together to deal with specific problems. Their records are frequently lost because no one is in charge of them. There is no central file anymore. Yet frequently these are the records in which posterity will be most interested.

To summarize, people frequently wonder whether record keeping will suffer because employees won't be making records, perhaps because they want to "cover up" their "wrong-doing". This is a charge that we frequently hear, especially in the modern office that employees are trying to hide something in government. That is a possibility, of course, but it's always been a possibility. A more likely problem with modern record keeping is not that people don't want to document their activities, but rather that documentation isn't necessary to get the job done anymore. If in my agency the only way to get action is to write a memo, I will. There are certain situations in which that must be done. But what if a less formal and less time-consuming approach is available a meeting, a telephone call, a discussion over lunch. Will I then go back and laboriously write out all of the decisions that were made when the people actually doing the work know what they're supposed to do and are off doing it? Given the highly pressurized life in which many bureaucrats live, that's not going to happen.

This is not to say that people don't operate, at times, with an eye to the unknown reader who may or may not see a memo or an e-mail in the future. Personally I--and I think many other people, especially in records management where we are aware of the fact that records stick around for a while--write my e-mails so that they can be read by anyone, in part because my e-mails have been forwarded a long way without my knowledge. There is a true story (I think it's a true story) told to me by a records officer (normally reliable) who worked with his information technology shop to set up a system by which the e-mail of the agency head was automatically captured for preservation and eventual transfer to the National Archives (NARA). The agency head didn't have to do a thing other than keep doing his work. When the records officer finally told the agency head of this great breakthrough in saving his e-mail, the agency head immediately stopped using e-mail altogether. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with people trying to get access to records quickly, but that's what this is all about the understanding that your records may be seen in the relatively near future. It is to say that knowing that records can be requested and can be released may change how people create records sort of a Heisenberg principle of records management.

My final thoughts on the central file concern how the decline of the central file affects how we as archivists choose the records that will come to the archives, and how this will affect you as researchers. First of all, in case you aren't familiar with this area, records scheduling is the activity by which agencies and the National Archives agree to a specific retention for a specific type of record. Appraisal is the process by which NARA selects out those records that warrant continued retention after the creating agency no longer needs them. The actual process works pretty well. Archivists can usually pick out pretty good records. But there are two problem areas that I think will have long-term effect.

First of all, records change. Records are centralized one year, the next new administration de-centralizes them. But the schedules, the way we select the records, don't change. When I was at EPA there were two common shifts in record keeping. One was hierarchical. At some points in time the meaty files--memoranda with attachments, background information, and supporting documents that high officials generally dealt with-- were kept centrally. At other times these files were sent back to the programs that created them. Schedules the record schedules by which NARA and federal agencies agree what records are kept and what records are pitched are a frozen snapshot of that relationship. When records change, the record schedule should change too, but it doesn't always. If the schedule lists the agency official files as archival and the lower level files as disposable, that set of dispositions may long outlive the way the records were actually used. Agencies are supposed to update their schedules on a regular basis, but few do.

Part of the reason for this is the second problem. Schedules are only as good as the people implementing them. That is variable, both within agencies and across agencies. Those people implementing schedules are frequently poorly trained and have little experience. Working with records is often a job that goes to the newest employee and is passed on to whomever the next newest employee is. While schedule application is considered part of filing by many organizations, the two processes are very different and need very different skills.

But scheduling and appraisal practices have other problems as well. Traditionally NARA went after things like the central file as an archival record the one place where documentation was well organized, well managed, complete, concisely maintained, and easy to understand and access. Generally too, there was an assumption that the records of the highest layer of an organization were the most useful in understanding the major issues of that organization. However, many would question whether that is still the case. First of all, personnel practices such as self-directed teams, empowered employees, and de-layered organizations mean many decisions are made at much lower levels. While the ultimate decision may still be made at the top, the information that supports that decision may only be found in lower level files. In many cases, these lower level organizations have no strong organizational history or long life. Secondly, many agencies reorganize regularly, resulting in lost and forgotten records.

Let's look at some other issues related to electronic records. One is electronic mail (e-mail) and word processing records. Many agencies currently lack the ability to manage these files as real records. What do we mean by that? They lack the ability to organize them into record series the way they do paper. (By record series, I mean a body of records relating to specific types of functions, transactions, whatever.) Neither can people share access to these electronic e-mails or word processing documents in the way that central files allow. Since agencies can't separate records by type (i.e. record series), they can't destroy records when they're supposed to; nor can they preserve documents for archival storage the way they're supposed to. It's one big mix of documents, all of which tend to be treated the same, no matter what their subject. For these and other reasons, NARA and many others have avoided taking (accessioning) such records unless absolutely necessary. E-mail and word processing records can cause a lot of problems once they are accessioned as well, as Mark Conrad alluded to; some of these challenging records will be coming to NARA from the White House. Finally, there is no easy way to demonstrate the authenticity and integrity of these records. For these and other reasons, as I said, NARA has not been accessioning many of them. Yet some people have argued that these records should stand on their own. Examples of poor record keeping that they are, they are records nonetheless. If I have the opportunity to accession paper records of an important official, I generally don't ask whether the records were managed according to strict procedures, organized in a comprehensive filing system, and maintained under strict control to ensure authenticity and integrity of every record in there. As an archivist I'm generally happy to have the records; and I warn potential users that this is what we got, but at least we got something. To change from such an approach would require a major paradigm shift, which would have to be considered from a variety of perspectives including from an archival perspective.

My penultimate point. Electronic records are changing the way people actually do their work. As noted above, much of the work is now being done by e-mail as opposed to traditional memoranda, telegrams, and the like. Work formerly done by formal communications is now done by e-mail. For that reason, the National Archives has provided agencies with specific guidance on the need to include e-mail messages in relevant files, because we are finding that so much important work is done there.

Finally, there is a question for historians to think about. We are dealing with new kinds of records. In the world of the Internet would you, as a historian, like to be able to track where the President was on the Internet--this is where he went, this is what he looked at? Would you like to know the Internet sources I looked at in preparing this paper? Would it be handy to know the number of times I edited it, how much screen time I spent on it? Maybe not this paper, but what about something from the National Security Council? What about some major policy documents prepared within the federal government? Is this something that you need to know, or is it something that would be nice to know? There are lots of different kinds of documentation out there that we haven't had available to us in the past. And now that we recognize there are new types of records, the new appraisal issues discussed above necessitate that we take a new look at how we do appraisal. The National Archives will be looking at better ways of scheduling and appraising records in a business process re-engineering project scheduled to begin in calendar 1999. Staff have already come up with a lot of possible ideas for better ways to capture records for the archival collection, and we'll be looking at those plus a lot of other issues. In closing, in the words of the old Chinese curse, we archivists live in interesting times. Modern record keeping and electronic records are changing the world, a world whose records we are trying to capture. We have to change to meet that challenge. Thank you.

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