Over the last couple of weeks a storm has blown up over the “destruction of Ruskin’s archives”. Starting with a blog post by former Dean of Ruskin and followed by a number of other blog posts on history workshop online, several discussion lists including local-history and archives-nra , other online fora The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the College itself have all contributed both smoke and fire.
I’d like to examine a few of the issues that Ruskingate opens onto for records managers and archivists.
1. What are the “Ruskin archives”?
Are they the archival collections that have been given to the College (the implication of many of the initial responses to Dr Kean’s blog post), or as archivists and others assume, any records of archival (ie enduring) value held by the College. The College itself seems to view its own institutional records – which of course may be of archival value – as distinct from its “archives“.
However, cutting through some of the smoke, much of the debate has centred on the destruction of student records.
Many of the historical/College stakeholder community and of the archival community take it for granted that such records are or may be of archival value and thus “archives”. Clarity about what archives are, and discussion about appraisal of value (see next point) are areas in which the recordkeeping community and the research/historical interest community could benefit from a courteous yet challenging dialogue.
2. Destruction of records.
Both these communities would have a difficulty with the destruction of records identified as having archival value, although many in the archival community see appraisal activities as including potentially sampling of large quantities of archival records.
I think that the essence of the problem lies with the College being seen to destroy student records, and not being able to justify what it is doing.
Accordingly, I have submitted an FoI request (follow it here) for the College’s Records Management Policy and retention schedule, which should provide some of the background information for the management of internal records including retention and destruction. I’ll be posting again once I receive a final response to my request.
3. The Data Protection Act 1998
The Archives & Records Association, in its former incarnation as the Society of Archivists, has the only “trade association” “code of practice” agreed with the Information Commissioner under section 51(4) of the Act. The document has been freely available since at least 2003 and discusses at length the retention of records containing personal data as archives. The College’s apparent application of the DPA as meaning “we cannot hold student records of past students” is a narrowly focussed one at best.
Is it the role of the recordkeeping community better to publicise this kind of specialist advice?
4. The duties of public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act 2000
Section 46(1) of the Act provides for the issue of a code of practice by the Lord Chancellor “providing guidance to relevant authorities as to the practice which it would, in his opinion, be desirable for them to follow in connection with the keeping, management and destruction of their records.”
The current code of practice includes recommendations on policies, disposal and the other aspects of RM that one would expect from the existing professional standards such as ISO 15489 and other best practice.
Both The National Archives and JISC provide quantities of guidance on records management aimed at the non-specialist, including a generic retention and disposal schedule and work on student records (specifically). The College management do not appear to have seen or considered this advice, and appear not to be meeting their statutory obligations in this area.
How can the recordkeeping community better support smaller institutions without specialist staff in archives/records management?