Why Effective Records Management Matters in a Democracy
Typically, the justification for a records management (RM) program is tied to cost cutting, efficiency, and managing risk. While certainly important pieces of records management, for government records managers there is an additional and significant reason for a RM program.
Government archivists and records managers typically are guided by mission statements that focus on preserving and documenting government institutions. One of three elements of the Utah State Archives and Records Service mission is to preserve records of enduring value. The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) mission statement states that one of its goals is “safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government” so that citizens have access to the records that document their rights. These missions are partly outward facing and concerned with providing sufficient evidence of government actions so that citizens can access and understand the decisions of government officials. Records document actions taken by the government. Keeping records in democratic governments matters because the government must be accountable to its citizens. Records are neutral; they can be used in a variety of ways — Some positive, and some negative. For example, the records collected in Paraguay’s Archives of Terror demonstrate that the same set of records might be used to oppress or, ultimately, to seek justice and reconciliation.
According to NARA 1-3 percent of the records created by federal agencies have long-term legal or historical value. The Utah State Archives estimates that approximately 5 percent of the records created by state, county, and municipal agencies are retained permanently as part of the state’s historical record. It is the responsibility of government records managers to create and follow retention schedules that will determine how long records are kept. As retention schedules are applied records managers sift through and reduce a government’s records, leaving behind the materials that will become the entity’s documentary heritage. Records managers are actively involved in ensuring that records that need to be kept are kept, while those that need to be destroyed are destroyed. By reducing the records static – those records that have temporary value – records managers help clarify and focus the historic record that remains. This is not a task to be taken lightly, and it is one that cannot be avoided as each decision to keep or destroy a record represents a privileging of the stories that can be told from that record.
Verne Harris argues that all records are essentially tied up in storytelling. He writes, “Telling stories of our past is a quintessentially human activity. Story is crucial to our construction of meaning and is carried by our dream of the impossible. Without story we are without soul.” As records managers we are a part of the records making process. We have a role to play in shaping the story that will be told about the institutions we serve and, in the end, about ourselves.
 Verne Harris, “Postmodernism and Archival Appraisal: Seven Theses,” in Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007), 102.