Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Problem With Old Records Is - They’re Really Expensive To Store and Shredding Is Cheap…

One of the recurring memes in the world of archives and records management is that it’s really expensive to store stuff – especially stuff that nobody’s ever going to look at ever again.  That’s why the archives and records management professionals develop “retention schedules.”  These schedules help records holders sort out the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

But like most human endeavors, deciding what gets to stay and what will become shredder fodder is often a “trial and error” kind of thing, especially when some human is deciding what will be considered the “wheat” a century from now.

So it was with some trepidation that I read the story about the shredders being fired up at NARA’s federal records centers.  Frankly, any story headlined “Millions of federal court records are being destroyed to save money” tends to make me sit up and take notice.

Then, when you’re done with that, be sure to read about the decision-making process wherein it is decided what gets to stay and what must go.  The article (linked here) appeared back in May on the “Third Branch” judicial site and is very enlightening. 

As you read, remember they’re discussing modern (1970 – 1995) court cases, not really old stuff.  Still, in a century or so, the 1970s will be considered “long, long ago”, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

In any case, courts will be saving the historically important cases.  Whatever might that mean? 

The article lays out the criteria for preservation.  It’s a case that:

    * Involved a lawyer, litigant, or witness of historical interest or importance;
    * Involved an issue of historical interest;
    * Involved a matter of national interest separate from the issues in the litigation; or
    * Received substantial media attention at the time.

So using these criteria, how many of the records that you regularly use for your research would meet the test?  For example, would the packet containing the papers relating to your great-grandfather’s contested will meet the test if the time period under discussion were 1900 – 1925 rather than 1970 - 1995?   Was he important enough? Did he hire the “right” lawyer?

Granted, the current issue involves a space problem for relatively modern civil and criminal federal court cases, not what we perceive today to be our “historic” records or the ones that previous legislation has designated as “permanent”. 

And, by the way, the concept of “permanent” is pretty fluid when it comes to tangible stuff like records.  Stuff that gets legislated today can get “unlegislated” fifty years from now.

Still, take a look at the bulleted criteria above and see if you concur that it’s evidence of an attitude – that “big” history is always more important than “little” history.

Famous ancestor? No problem – we’ll save that.  “Ne’er do well” criminal ancestor or street urchin type – sorry, too expensive and not in the “national interest.”  Toss it.

These days, lots of our “public history” decisions are made based upon money and power.  But then I guess that’s nothing new.

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