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Luminary Lectures @ Your Library

Records, Documents, and Stuff in the Digital Era

Dr. Richard Cox - March 7, 2003

As information technologies emerged in, spread to, and captivated society's leaders and institutions, archivists and records managers returned to their drawing boards to define better records and to develop improved administrative approaches for the new and more complex records. At the same time, in a completely autonomous fashion, records became a regular topic in newspapers, news magazines, and television and radio news shows. Even mundane auditing/accounting records became the focus of leading news stories as corporations went bankrupt, the bubble burst, and high-level, formerly powerful corporate executives were led away in handcuffs. What we see in these developments, perhaps, is confusion both within various segments of the information professions and in the general public about the substance of information, certainly an ironic state of affairs in an era that often seems to congratulate itself for its mastery of great globs of information.

Archivists, records managers, librarians, information scientists, and others have tried to grapple with the broadening scope of information - especially in the last decade - with a variety of research, scientific, technical, historical, and mathematical approaches, with most approaches far from the understanding (or interest) of the general public that is merrily exploring the tunnels, caverns, and wilderness of the World Wide Web. It may be that the distinguishing characteristics of our modern era may not be that it is the Information or Digital Era because of more information but that the hallmark is a combination of the pervasiveness of information and our recognition of its pervasiveness.

This lecture will focus on Dr. Cox's teaching on "understanding" information and his other work on electronic records management and archival appraisal. He will talk about the great variety of information "documents," broadly and loosely defined, and what he sees as the implications of this for the education and work of librarians and other information professionals (like archivists). Dr. Cox will contrast (and critique) his own sense of the broadening definition of document with that of his own efforts to define more narrowly a record for work with electronic information systems.

Records, Documents, and Stuff in the Digital Era
Richard J. Cox
Library of Congress
March 7, 2003


Let’s start with the obvious. We have access to more information today than at any other time. One historian states, rather casually, “Per person, we consume about 20,000 times as much reading material as our medieval ancestors.” Some translate such statistics into a characteristic of our modern era as The Information Age, and others suggest that somehow we are better off for all this information than we were before. Given the general propensity to believe in a Western notion of Progress, whereby with our faith in technocratic and scientific solutions we believe that the more information we have the better off we are and the better we will continually get, it is obvious why so many grab onto the idea that we are living in a grand and glorious era whereby we can muster all of human knowledge to solve virtually any problem or challenge confronting society and its institutions. Winifred Gallagher, in her book about her search for the divine, believes that “For most of history, there were no hard lines between the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.” The promises of our present technocratic age seem to be erasing the lines once again, except that technology has become god and information the divine message.

As a faculty member in a school of information sciences, observers might expect that I could muster a much more precise explanation for what this present age (the Digital Era with greater and easier access to information) means and offers or, that at the least, I could offer some scientific or formulaic definition of information. For sure, the twentieth century has been a century when we have seen varying explanations for information from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present (the documentalists, information theory, cybernetics, information science, and so forth). What I am discussing and arguing about here concerns my own work, my professional calling, and my livelihood. There are fallacies with this approach. Margaret Atwood, poet and novelist, notes, “Even if we are writers ourselves, it is very hard for us to watch ourselves in mid-write, as it were: our attention must be focused then on what we are doing, not on ourselves.” Today, I am trying to do both, ruminating about my work in mid-work in a manner intended to provide some self-reflection about the notion of information in the Information Age. As it turns out, trying to assess the nature of information in an age we have termed as being demarcated by information itself might be an impossible task, if not an improbable one. Perhaps, trying to mull over information through the teaching one does in a school of information studies in the so-called Information Age might be even more ludicrous of an assignment. Of course, it is an assignment I have given myself.

There are other reasons why this has become a difficult task. Bill Stumpf, renowned designer, draws on the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga to remind us how “not to forget how much we have sanitized natural experiences. We are warm in winter, cool in summer, we light up the night and darken the day. Our technology has allowed us to separate the visceral reactions from the experience producing these reactions.” We are like the frogs slowly and unconsciously heated in a pot of water in our high school biology classes. Words are everywhere, books pour from the publishers, Web sites proliferate at an immense rate, the television news programs and talk shows run twenty four hours a day, and email piles up on our desktops. In such a time, how we gain, read, or think about information is crucial. The issue is not how much information we have, but how we use it and how it helps us function in the real world. And for this, we have immense quantities of articles, books, software, and advice trying to guide us. And, now, let me add some more thousands of words to the cacophony of opinions, assuring you that this is what academics do best. Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s, senses that “we assign to education the powers that other societies award to religion, the word itself invested with so many meanings that it can be confused with Aladdin’s lamp, made to serve as synonym for the way out and ticket home, offered as an answer to every mother’s prayer.” I don’t think I am offering the way home or a ticket out, but rather that I am describing what my own road map seems to indicate about traveling in the present Information Age.


Let me provide a little personal view of my perspective adding to the great and reigning paradoxes of our age of information wealth. My professional affiliation is that of the archivist – the professional responsible for selecting, preserving, and making available the portion of the documentary heritage that has continuing (some would say enduring) value to society, its citizens, and its organizations . If one studies carefully the writings of both the theorists and practitioners (those who write) in my field, you will find a curious trait. Every commentator on the nature of records and record-keeping laments the quantity of records created and a goodly portion of these commentators suggests a range of guiding theories and methods by which to manage the documentary universe. It is also not difficult to find critics of the too many records syndrome, whether they are lambasting government waste and inefficient bureaucracy or simply observing how much paper piles up in offices and homes.

Likewise, we can find great gobs of critics, pundits, and others who write about the wonders and challenges of our so-called modern Information Age. While it is relatively easy to break these observers into camps of either complainants about too much information or predictors or proponents of the saving virtues of readily accessible information, more than ever before and cheaper than ever before, all groups readily acknowledge that we are immersed in information in unprecedented fashion. At the least, we recognize that the new information technologies of the past decade have transformed American governance and society, with extremely mixed results, both increasing access to more information about our government, institutions, and society while making some aspects of our lives much more difficult than ever before. At the same time, we must recognize that our immersion in these modern technologies tends to have us assign them greater revolutionary significance than we should. Debora Spar recently argued, “Cyberspace is indeed a brave new world, but it’s not the only new world. There have been other moments in time that undoubtedly felt very much like the present era, other moments when technology raced faster than governments and called forth whole new markets and social structures. Other entrepreneurs sensed that, they, too, were standing on the edge of history, bending authority to their will and reaping fabulous profits along the way.” Todd Gitlin, more caustically, notes that the “centrality of media is disguised, in part, by the prevalence of the assured, hard-edged phrase information society, or, even more grandly, information age. Such terms are instant propaganda for a way of life that is also a way of progress. . . . Information society glows with a positive aura. The very term information points to a gift – specific and ever replenished, shining forth in the bright light of utility. Ignorance is not bliss. . . information is.”

There is obviously a ready connection between these groups and an obvious reason why archivists, and their colleagues such as records managers, have an important role in the so-called Information Age. A large portion of what holds information is represented by records, and a substantial amount of these records remain of traditional types – letters, receipts, checks, licenses, diaries, and so forth – and these appear now in both analog and digital forms. And, as well, we are seeing increasingly new kinds of records, such as Web sites, reports with audio-visual and constantly updated statistics, and the like. However, what really holds the attention of Information Age pundits and the critics of bureaucratic documentation may be that their concerns are eternal. A half century ago, the scholar Jacques Barzun observed that “every age has carried with it great loads of information . . . deemed indispensable at the time.” When we look at the abundance of modern records and the flood of contemporary information we are simply too close to our sense of the documents to comprehend that whether one looked out over the documentary universe in 2000 or 1950 or 1850 or 1750 or at anytime before, they might have the same sense of euphoria or melancholy about what they observed. The image of the “information” building that you have been staring at, a photograph taken by one of my students who survived my “Understanding Information” course, shows a building from an early nineteenth century industrial site. Even a hundred years ago information was important enough that it was featured in a separate building at the entrance of an industrial complex. People needed information even then to navigate among the various buildings, to find a particular individual, to deliver a product or package, and the like. If the site was still an active one, we might expect it to have an information kiosk with a Web directory and GIS-guided maps and directories; and, some day, too, these might sit vacant, a relic of an earlier age and different hopes and sensibilities.

Despite the great widening notion of information objects or artifacts or documents, we also see additional immense paradoxes in our Information or Digital Age. In the midst of high-tech, flashy new concepts of documents that talk, read, and sing to us and blink and wink to sell, convince, and amuse us, we have seen a remarkable new sensitivity to the importance of very traditional records, many still kept as paper forms and housed in file cabinets and records center storage cartons, in our times. The remarkable story of the use of government archives and banking records, along with the opening of vast quantities of formerly classified records in both government and non-government entities like museums and libraries, in the Holocaust assets case has elevated the public’s understanding of the importance of even the most routine of the most bureaucratic seeming records. Stuart Eizenstat’s powerful new book about this provides a window into what we see happening. He comments in a number of places about the opening of the records and data banks of eleven federal agencies, noting how such cooperation is unusual: “The project demonstrated the awesome resources the U.S. executive branch can muster when it receives presidential backing. I was amazed at the powerful story that was emerging by drawing from the data banks of these different federal agencies.” Eizenstat relates that about a million records were declassified, the “largest single declassification in U.S. history.” At other points in the book, Eizenstat contrasts the cooperation and openness of the American federal government with the reluctance of many corporations and institutions and other national governments to open records or even to admit that they had records. Still, he relates that one success of the entire project was in ultimately seeing twenty-eight historical commissions established around the world to open other archives, a stellar achievement in the importance of open government and for attesting to the significance of records. Eizenstat believes that the “most lasting legacy of the effort [he] led was simply the emergence of the truth. . . . Historical facts can be suppressed, but eventually they bubble to the surface. What started as a tiny trickle from long-buried U.S. archives became a torrent of information that helps provide a final accounting for World War II.”

And we can see such comments, about numerous other cases, reflecting on the essential importance of records to society, especially in holding governments, corporations, public officials, the media, and other entities and groups accountable to society. We only have to consider the case of the Enron/Arthur Andersen scandals and the dramatic stories of the shredding of Enron’s records. The normally hurried efforts to destroy bureaucratic choking paper and other records were cast in another light, where “Enron failed because its leadership was morally, ethically, and financially corrupt.” In Enron’s case, we find false financial books cooked up to hide questionable activities, adoption of accounting procedures intended to favor certain kinds of risky speculative behavior and to inflate the sense of financial profits intended to produce raises and bonuses, the buying off of the auditors to look the other way, reports fabricated in ways to make them difficult to understand and allowing a range of interpretations, and a host of other strange and wonderful activities with multiple implications for what corporate records managers and archivists will face in their future work. The information buried in formerly very mundane records suddenly looked much more important and critical than as a mere byproduct of large corporations and excessive government regulations.

An essential paradox of our present age is, however, that we see the vocal advocates of the power of information and the technologies supporting the use of information often depicting traditional records as either bureaucratic obstacles needing to be re-engineered or re-invented out of the way or as objects that are far too limited in their analog, cumbersome state. The Information Age pundits conjure up pictures of inefficiency, ineptitude, waste, and other such obvious barriers – all serious matters – with the promise that new hardware and software will solve these problems or that these challenges will be resolved by the creation of new kinds of documents. The chief problem with such promises is, however, that concerns such as accountability are usually not part of the equation. The activities of the Third Reich or Enron, admittedly far apart in the degree of evil represented, were not factored in; governments and businesses would simply use the best information technologies in rational and orderly manners. How many times have you talked with a vendor promising you the world, until you asked some very specific questions about the long-term maintenance of particular kinds of records or objects, how the system enables you to keep the organization or yourself compliant with external regulations and best practices, or raised other such concerns? There is substantial evidence that both the long-dreamed of idea of the paperless office is that, a dream, and that the promise that the computer will bring greater efficiency also still a promise (an unfulfilled one).

The paradoxes go much deeper and are much more blatant. The advent of the Internet has been heralded with promises of greater access to information, more open organizations, easier methods of working in organizations whereby professionals can work from home or anywhere, and stronger democratic societies in which citizens have more information and greater opportunities for influencing their elected and appointed officials. The reality has been somewhat different. It can be a mistake to believe that the modern information technologies are no more intrusive than those of earlier eras, or that there may not be something distinctive about this particular information age. There have been invasions on privacy and the quality of life. There are, for example, immense differences in the modern workplace related to or caused by the information technologies. A recent study on the corporate workplace notes that the “overwork, stress, and insecurity of today’s workplaces has been exacerbated, not relieved, by the proliferation of high-tech equipment – laptop computers, cell phones, electronic desk calendars, beepers, portable fax machines, Palm Pilots, and more – that help people try to keep up with growing workloads while also making it impossible for them to fully escape their jobs and rules. New technologies, meanwhile, facilitate intrusive efforts by employers to monitor everything from their staffers’ comings and goings to computerized keystrokes and mouse taps, e-mails sent and received, and personal productivity on a weekly, daily, or even hour-by-hour basis.” And after a decade of opening up government records, we have seen a severe closing down of records, post September 11, 2001, in the name of national security (even though many of the activities to shut down access to records seems to be only peripherally related to security matters).


One of the more interesting paradoxes, for me at least, has been the nearly simultaneous narrowing of the notion of record and the broadening of the concept of document in this age of the ubiquitous computer. If nothing else, these contrasts point to the wild frontier that is cyberspace.

Archivists and other records professionals have worked with electronic information technologies for more than three decades, and while there is still a great deal of consternation about just how successful the preservation and maintenance of electronic records systems has been there are obvious discernible features of the processes involved in confronting such challenges. In the 1960s, most archivists either ignored what were then called machine-readable records (since these were mostly large scale statistical databases) or more adamantly declared the early electronic records to be non-records and not their responsibility. Within a decade, as the personal computer took over, such attitudes changed and archivists and records managers knew that they needed to expand their horizons, that they needed to be in the game. There followed debates about the nature of archival theory and knowledge, calls for practical case studies and the subsequent appearance of how-to manuals, expressions of the need for research and the need for stronger partnerships with both the creators of records and the creators of the hard- and software, and some research into the challenges and nature of electronic records management.

Most of the research, all with a heavy bit of theorizing as well, has led to efforts to more precisely define records. In the major research project I was involved with, we concluded that records were the products of business transactions, that each record must possess a structure, content, and context in order to be a complete record, and that each record was the result of a warrant (deriving from legal, fiscal, or acceptable best practices). Another research project, drawing on the much older science of diplomatics, also came up with a much more restricted notion of record: “When a record is said to be trustworthy, it means that it is both an accurate statement of facts and a genuine manifestation of those facts. Record trustworthiness thus has two qualitative dimensions: reliability and authenticity. Reliability means that the record is capable of standing for the facts to which it attests, while authenticity means that the record is what it claims to be.” One of the primary investigators in this project defines an electronic record, presenting its components (medium, content, physical form, intellectual form, action, persons, archival bond, and context), and arguing that “electronic records possess essentially the same components as traditional records,” but “with electronic records, these components are not inextricably joined to one another as they are in traditional records” but are “stored and managed separately as metadata. . .”, all of these needing to be used to “embed procedural rules for creating, handling, and maintaining such records in an agency-wide records system, and to integrate documentary procedures with business processes.” In such projects, we can readily see that in order to manage records as precise objects that they needed to be defined as precisely as possible in order to enable their requirements to be engineered into the software.

While such interesting projects in the archival corner of the information professions have been going on, other information professionals have been expanding the notion of the information document. David Levy and John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in their recent books provide the best glimpse of the broader sense of a document. David Levy argues that documents are “bits of the material world – clay, stone, animal skin, plant fiber, sand – that we’ve imbued with the ability to speak.” These things are fixed, that can be repeated, and that are essential to the social order. Out of such writings come a very broad concept of a document that is very fitting to the expansive landscape that is cyberspace and beyond. Documents are cultural artifacts, the adhesiveness for community, imbued with symbolic value and power, representative of other activities, full of content, responsible for performing a task, and both fluid and fixed (depending on their medium). As Levy very poetically muses, a document is a “surrogate, a little sorcerer’s apprentice, to whom a piece of work has been delegated.”

Brown, Duguid, and Levy are all trying to reign in, to some degree, what is the main building block of the Information Age. Still, it is relatively easy to surmise that the archivist’s notion of a record is, at best, a subset of the concept of document as it is now being more popularly used. This is certainly not a problem. Indeed, if we tried to diagram the universe of information along with the various information professions, we would readily discern that there are many other disciplinary groups (librarians, museum curators, information scientists, knowledge managers) in addition to archivists and records managers who have carved out a niche of that universe. Each of these groups has developed different means to define or assess an aspect of information, and it is when we think more broadly like this that we begin to see another fuzzy and challenging aspect of what we are dealing with in our particular information era.


An amusing aspect of being a professor in a school of information sciences and being part of what we call the information professions is to be on the front line of what remains continuing and confusing discussions about what information is and how the various information disciplines array themselves. I have followed listserv discussions whereby information scientists viciously attack the concept of knowledge as used by knowledge managers even though there are hundreds of definitions of information. In my own school many of my library and information science colleagues wonder why I am buzzing around and discussing concepts like evidence as manifested by records and important for purposes such as accountability, corporate memory, and social memory. At best what holds us together (and sometimes this is very tenuous) is that we (the disparate faculty members) are convinced of the importance of information to improve the performance and quality of society, the life of its citizens, and its institutions. While we have many different perspectives about how information is defined or focus on different elements of information, we share a common commitment that information is critical to life, as well as a common sense notion that information needs to be managed, preserved, accessible, protected, made reliable, and processed in forms that are practical.

One of the values of the Levy and Brown-Duguid model of documents is that it both opens up the possibility of cutting across the diverse disciplinary orientations to information and provides a common notion (even if it is somewhat imagined) that can unite us. For teaching purposes, it actually breaks open the more rigid quantitative or qualitative measures of information that is often assumed by library and information scientists and opens up the students’ world to see that information is not something that is confined to a record, a book, an archives, a library but it is actually something we are all immersed in. I have used the information document notion as a unifying theme in my version of one of the core courses (Understanding Information) for our Masters in Library and Information Science degree, where students are intended to gain knowledge about the responsibilities held by the information professions, but mostly to help students to comprehend the complexities of information in modern society and how the various notions of information affect or should affect the work of any information professional. Course objectives include defining the nature of information, providing historic background on the nature of information systems, orienting students to concepts of information systems, integrating views of the physical and virtual library and other information providers, orienting students to technology issues related to information systems, making students aware of professional issues, making students aware of human factors influencing information systems, providing an orientation to information services, and providing an awareness of social, economic, political, and other issues affecting information systems. Students learn about some obvious information documents (obvious to people planning to work in a library or archives), such as books, records, newspapers, photographs, and maps, but they are also asked to explore other information documents such as movies, artifacts, monuments, landscape, and buildings. The last information document we consider is the Web page, a place that most of the younger students seem to see as both the beginning and end of the essence of both information and documents.

These are all things we read, or to adopt some of the language of experts like Levy, these are all things that speak to us. We tend to assign document-like characteristics to many artifacts or objects. Geologist Robert Thorson’s book on New England’s stone walls commences, “Abandoned stone walls are the signatures of rural New England.” These “stone walls have an important story to tell.” Thorson adds, “A stone pulled from an authentic New England wall speaks, all at once, of ancient seas, glacial mud, and the tip of a scythe being broken during spring mowing a century ago.” We can “read” all sorts of things. Alberto Manguel’s discourse on reading pictures, notes “I would say that if looking at pictures is equivalent to reading, then it is a vastly creative form of reading, a reading in which we must not only put words into sounds into sense but images into sense into stories.” In other words, reading pictures can be complex and confusing. Pictures provide stories, riddles, witnesses, nightmares, reflections, philosophies, memories, theatrical performances, and the like, sometimes all at once or sometimes bits at a time as experienced by different individuals at different times and at different cultures. Reading these documents is a complicated and challenging process, for sure, but every aspect of the effort involves some aspect of what can be termed “information.” The Irish historian R. F. Foster describes a visit to a country estate where when doing some historical research he encountered a story about the reluctance to cut down an old tree in the late nineteenth century because it was “unlucky.” When some workers finally agreed to remove the tree, it was discovered that the tree was “densely peppered with lead.” Foster continues: “The tree stood for more than bad luck. In the 1798 Rising, particularly bloody [in the area of the estate], local rebels had been tied to the tree and shot. The memory persisted, and the taboo: the actual association was suppressed, whether for reasons of tactfulness or trauma. Or both.”

Brown and Duguid in their interesting analysis worry that the “myth of information . . . is overpowering richer explanations,” whereby we have a “tunnel vision” or “infocentric” explanation to everything primarily associated (such as computers and the Web) with the Information Age. Kicking open a broader array of information documents helps students, and me, to comprehend that every age, every socio-economic group, every culture is part of an information culture. For sure, the high powered computer networks, massive digitization projects, the pervasive and daily dumping of email messages are all part of something that seems somewhat unique or special to our times, but it is certain that most people in most eras believed themselves to be immersed in information in very similar ways. Michael Pollan describes reading books in this way: “Rather than a means to an end, the deep piles of words on the page comprised for me a kind of soothing environment, a plush cushion into which sometimes I would remember almost nothing the moment I lifted myself out of the newspaper or magazine or paperback in which I’d been immersed. . . . Mostly I just let the print wash over me, as if it were indeed warm water, destined to swirl down the drain of my forgetfulness.” In the same way we are surrounded by objects that can be read (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively). We must, for example, learn that museum exhibitions are “fundamentally theatrical, for they are how museums perform the knowledge they create.” We learn to read the weather: “Weather writes, erases and rewrites itself upon the sky with the endless fluidity of language; and it is with language that we have sought throughout history to apprehend it. Since the sky has always been more read than measured, it has always been the province of words.” Monuments or memorials, with or without texts, are the “most traditional kind of memory object or technology,” and as a result has to be learned to be read and re-read. Landscapes are covered in texts, but they can also be read as texts even if no words are evident. Surveying Antebellum New York, David Henkin notes, “writing and print appeared on buildings, sidewalks, sandwich-board advertisements, the pages of personal diaries, classroom walls, Staffordshire pottery, needlepoint samples, election tickets, and two-dollar bills, to name just a few locations and contexts.” Looking over our contemporary cityscape, Dolores Hayden sees that “urban landscapes are storehouses for these social memories, because natural features such as hills or harbors, as well as streets, buildings, and patterns of settlement, frame the lives of many people and often outlast many lifetimes.”

We could continue this exercise of considering just how far-reaching the scope of information documents is, and how this provides perhaps a richer context for considering the salient features of the Information Age. Suffice it to say that my students seem to have been grasping that understanding information, and hence the nature of the current era, is richer and more complicated than they really have generally thought about before considering a broader array of documents outside of the most obvious ones. Students, in addition to the information documents I presented, considered in their own research projects diaries, nutritional labels on food products, poetry, tattoos, pictograms, oral tradition and storytelling, music recording liner notes, personal names, advertisements, cookbooks, county courthouses, the family snapshot photograph, zines, and comic books (to report on some of their topics) as other document forms. Their papers added to a rich discussion enabling us to see that the world, for generations and across cultures, has been distinguished by information eras. Just as Robert Darnton has reminded us that France in the mid-eighteenth century was also an information society – “we imagine the Old Regime as a simple, tranquil, media-free world-we-have-lost, a society with no telephones, no television, no e-mail, Internet, and all the rest. In fact, however, it was not a simple world at all. It was merely different. It had a dense communication network made up of media and genres that have been forgotten” – we can demonstrate how nearly every era has been one in which information plays a crucial defining role.


One result of seeing all this information and believing that information technology is the defining metaphor for our present Information Age is to come to believe that we must also be able to save everything. It may be that we need to expand our notions of information away from the purely scientific or theoretical to a much more practical, working definition or concept. Just as scholars are working the treasures of eBay because they find materials they do not believe are held in most archival or library repositories, information scholars and professionals probably need to expand how they research, write, and teach about information. One commentator writes, “Academic sleuths once relied almost exclusively on the archives of major research libraries to track down facts and colorful details. Now, historians, literary critics, and museum archivists across the country incorporate a regular search of eBay into their research routine.” This assessment continues, “Overall, the availability on eBay of historical objects and ephemera from Americans' attics has given scholars access to information that traditionally has been ignored by major research institutions.” All this makes sense. It is, however, quite something else to think that we can save everything that is on eBay because of its potential information value. Archivists and other information professionals are waking up to such challenges. One archivist from South Africa notes, “Even if archivists in a particular country were to preserve every record generated throughout the land, they would still have only a silver of a window into that country’s experience.” We probably can say this about the task of saving all print and digital information as well; it is only a miniscule part of all human experience and for sure only a minor portion of all documents that can be read in some fashion.

A few years ago most of us would have laughed at even the possibility that anybody would posit the notion that everything with some information content or value must be preserved. We would have thought it outrageously hilarious that someone might have decided that not only should everything be saved but that it must be saved in its original format. Then along came novelist and literary essayist Nicholson Baker and his Double Fold bombshell. The media took to his rambling, saber-rattling, conspiratorial diatribe like a duck to water. Laudatory review after laudatory review appeared, and in short order the word got out that librarians and archivists were destroyers, that they were violating a sacred covenant with the public, and that preservation administrators and conservators alike were willing accomplices in the destruction of our documentary heritage. The institution that we are now in was a part of this conspiracy. We were all vandals in the stacks, as the New York Times Book Review dramatically portrayed on the cover of its issue reviewing the controversial Baker book. Harken to me, my fellow vandals!

The purpose of understanding information and the documents that constitute and convey information is to comprehend that the universe of documentation is so large that not everything can or should be saved. As an educator of archivists, members of a professional group who cleave quite closely to the notion of highly selective appraisal approaches and results, I work to help their future colleagues perceive that even every record with archival value might not be able to be saved. The understanding of the archivist derives from his or her knowledge about records and record-keeping systems. Likewise, the reason that we teach a course like Understanding Information is to assist students to grasp that information and the information documents are multitudinous, complex, fragile, ubiquitous, redundant, and constantly expanding in size, scope, variety, and nature. By understanding what kinds of information documents society builds on, we can begin to understand what kinds of decisions must be made about how to manage the information and its supporting technologies.

The challenge for a library and information science educator is, of course, that these schools are often easily caught up in the hype of the information age. We become believers of the importance of information as the crux of what makes society function. We become technocrats, immersing people into the nature of tools as if these tools and the requisite skills to use them are the only critical matters. Over the years we pushed out rare books and history of printing courses in order to accommodate more courses on information technology, partly to grab onto the revenue gravy train of funding agencies and partly out of belief that the printed book was dying and digital information was to replace everything. Now, we find the need to reintroduce new courses because the book persists and, just as importantly, because the e-book demands its historical context if we are to understand what it represents. In order to be able to value the true worth of the present era and the growth and wonders of the World Wide Web, we must be able to place it as well into its historical context. Otherwise we become prey to every new fad, gimmick, buzzword, and trite trend that runs on newspaper and television advertisements promising a kind of digital salvation. And our schools do not educate the next generation of information professionals, but they merely turn out unquestioning people lacking the big picture or possessing the skills to be problem solvers, critical analysts, and wise leaders.

While it is critical for us to understand that we acquire information from multitudinous sources, we also must recognize that certain of these sources assume different levels of importance because of what they document. The memory of the destruction of the Congo and its people by King Leopold II of Belgium in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was nearly eradicated because of the deliberate destruction of the state archives by Leopold and his officials. Oral tradition and other eyewitness accounts did not compensate for the loss of the records, or, at least, did not keep memory of these events alive and vital. What Leopold did was a deliberate act of wanton destruction, a kind of informational genocide as well as the more traumatic real kind. If we persist to believe in all the promises and hype of the Information Age we will inadvertently destroy the critical information documents and documentary heritage of our own generation.

Yes, these are exciting, complex, and trying times, and we as information professionals have a very important role to play in our society and culture – if we can get our collective minds and disciplines wrapped about the primary questions and issues. One university professor commenting on the purpose of higher education has argued for a “more holistic approach to learning, a disciplinary training for people who teach in college that takes into account the fact that we are educators of whole human beings, a form of higher education that would take responsibility to the emergence of an integrated person.” This is especially difficult in a school of information sciences, where tools and numbers and rhetoric can easily get in the way of teaching the full dimensions of information use and nature in our lives, places of work, and society.

Yet, we need to seek out to not just manipulate and massage information, but to understand it. Otherwise, we are just playing with lots of stuff and the people and organizations relying on records and documents for evidence, accountability, and memory will be lost in cyberspace. Novelist and science fiction writer Bruce Sterling recently wrote about technology in our Information Age, arguing that “Technology never leaps smoothly from height to height of achievement; that’s just technohype, it’s for the rubes. In the real world, technology ducks, dodges, and limps.” For Sterling (and for me), both the present and the future are messy and complex, and the roles that information plays in all this just as messy and complex. As an information professional and the educator of information professionals like librarians and archivists, I have to convey to my students and colleagues, both in the academy and in the field, that these complexities are what makes our tasks both so important and interesting. The sheer bulk of information tests and taunts us, and I love it. And when I discover that another individual fifty or a hundred or more years ago also struggled with the same challenges, I am reassured that the records, documents, and stuff of our present digital era are worth even more attention and care, connecting us both to the past and the future while serving the needs of the present.

In a fascinating history of the compass, Amir Aczel gives us a glimpse into the complexities of understanding information. Aczel writes, “Ancient mariners were astute observers – their trade was not only a science, it was an art.” A mariner “would use all the tools available to him – astronomical observations, soundings, estimation of the directions of winds and currents, and even the directions followed by migrating animals – to guide his ship as close as possible to its destination. Once the coastline was sighted, he would use his knowledge of the terrain to correct the vessel’s heading accordingly and guide it into port.” Likewise, we need to use all of our faculties to bear on understanding information and the nature of our present era. Are we really very different from those of a century, five centuries, or a thousand years ago in our reliance on both information and the technologies that support its creation and use? Yes, the technologies are different, and they pose new possibilities as well as problems, but how we best use information may still be as much a factor of cultural, economic, political, and other dimensions as anything else, necessitating us to be “astute observer” as well. Many worry that we are being numbed by all of the information, but I hope my students, at least, take away with them a greater appreciation of information and its present age. I hope the tool I, and my colleagues, give them is the counterpart of the compass for the Information Age – the ability to think, critique, and find the way.

Thank you.

About the Speaker

Richard J. Cox is Professor in Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences where he is responsible for the archives concentration in the Master's in Library Science degree and the Ph.D. degree. Prior to his current position he worked at the New York State Archives and Records Administration, Alabama Department of Archives and History, the City of Baltimore, and the Maryland Historical Society. He chaired the Society of American Archivists (SAA) committee that drafted graduate archival education guidelines adopted by its Council in 1988, served for four years as a member of that association's Committee on Education and Professional Development, and was a member of the Society's governing Council from 1986 through 1989. Dr. Cox served as Editor of the American Archivist from 1991 through 1995, and he is presently editor of the Records & Information Management Report as well as serving as the Society of American Archivists Publications Editor. He has written extensively on archival and records management topics and has published eight books in this area: American Archival Analysis: The Recent Development of the Archival Profession in the United States (1990) -- winner of the Waldo Gifford Leland Award given by the Society of American Archivists; Managing Institutional Archives: Foundational Principles and Practices (1992); The First Generation of Electronic Records Archivists in the United States: A Study in Professionalization (1994); Documenting Localities (1996); Closing an Era: Historical Perspectives on Modern Archives and Records Management (2000); Managing Records as Evidence and Information (2001), winner of the Waldo Gifford Leland Award in 2002; co-editor, Archives & the Public Good: Records and Accountability in Modern Society (2002); and Vandals in the Stacks? A Response to Nicholson Baker's Assault on Libraries (2002). He has new books coming out on the implications of September 11th for archives, libraries, and museums and on re-thinking the concepts and purposes of archival appraisal. He is currently working on additional books on the concept of information documents, the impact of electrostatic copying on the modern office, and principled records management (ethical and legal issues).

List of References

  1. John Man, Alphabeta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000), 14.
  2. Winifred Gallagher, Working on God (New York: Random House, 1999), 55.
  3. Ronald E. Day, The Modern Invention of Information: Discourse, History, and Power (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001).
  4. Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 55.
  5. Bill Stumpf, The Ice Palace That Melted Away: How Good Design Enhances Our Lives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 9.
  6. Lewis H. Lapham, “Study Hall,” Harper’s 303 (September 2001): 9.
  7. See, for example, Haynes Johnson’s discussion of these technologies and the O. J. Simpson trial, the Clinton political scandals, and corporate influences on society in his The Best of Times: The Boom and Bust Years of America Before and After Everything Changed (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2002).
  8. Debor Spar, Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Discovery, Chaos, and Wealth from the Compass to the Internet (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2001), 3.
  9. Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (New York: Metropolitan books, 2001), p. 5.
  10. Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (New York: Perennial Classics, 2002; org. pub. 1959), 12.
  11. Stuart E. Eizenstat, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), 100, 346.
  12. See Richard J. Cox and David A. Wallace, eds., Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society (Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 2002) for numerous case studies and additional examples.
  13. Robert Bryce’s Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), 12.
  14. See Thomas K. Landauer, The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995) and Abigail J. Sellen, and Richard H. R. Harper. The Myth of the Paperless Office (Cambridge: MIT, 2001).
  15. For an example of such promises, consult the writings of Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (New York: Perseus Books, 2002); The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993); and Virtual Reality (New York: Touchstone Book, 1991).
  16. Jill Andresky Fraser, White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 10.
  17. At the beginning of this year the New York Times ran a long, front page news story about how the current Bush administration is clamping down on the access to its records. Adam Clymer, “Government Openness at Issue as Bush Holds On to Records,” New York Times, January 3, 2003 was a chilling story. Clymer provided an accounting of all of the various steps taken by this administration and reasons why such actions are underway and the picture was not an attractive one: “Some of the Bush policies, like closing previously public court proceedings, were prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and are part of the administration's drive for greater domestic security. Others, like Vice President Dick Cheney's battle to keep records of his energy task force secret, reflect an administration that arrived in Washington determined to strengthen the authority of the executive branch, senior administration officials say.” Another recent report confirms such problems. Jack Nelson’s U.S. Government Secrecy and the Current Crackdown on Leaks, Working Paper Series #2003-1 (Cambridge: The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University, 2002) describes how the Bush administration has set an “all-time record” for classifying records, coupled with such sponsored legislation as the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Information Act, and the Homeland Security Act. Nelson describes the history of such secrecy, dating back to the First World War, but he primarily focuses on the very recent past because of the greater intensity of government efforts to be more secret and to stop up leaks. The most interesting description of activities relates to an unofficial government body named the “Dialogue,” a group of media executives and government officials brought together to try and discuss the nature of information leaks and their role in a democratic state. “Dialogue” has been meeting for the past year, and it seems to have made some positive steps in convincing government officials that harsher actions taken against individuals who may leak information is counter to how a democratic society works and, in fact, the efforts to cease leaks may be impossible and cause damage to the work of the administration and government agencies. The report can be found at
  18. My view of all this is documented in my The First Generation of Electronic Records Archivists in the United States: A Study in Professionalization (New York: Haworth Press, 1994).
  19. Here is a sampling: David Bearman, Electronic Evidence: Strategies for Managing Records in Contemporary Organizations (Pittsburgh: Archives and Museum Informatics, 1994); The Concept of Record: Report from the Second Stockholm Conference on Archival Science and the Concept of Record 30-31 May 1996 (Skrifter utgivna av Riksarkivat 4, 1998); Richard J. Cox, Managing Records as Evidence and Information (Westport: Conn: Quorum Books, 2001); Cox and David Wallace, Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society (Westport, Conn.:Quorum Books, 2002); Luciana Duranti, Terry Eastwood, and Heather MacNeil, Preservation of the Integrity of the Electronic Record (Dorddrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003); Trevor Livelton, Archival Theory, Records, and the Public (Lanham, Md.: The Society of American Archivists and the Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996); Sue McKemmish and Frank Upward, eds., Archival Documents: Providing Accountability Through Recordkeeping (Melbourne: Ancora Press, 1993); Heather MacNeil, Trusting Records: Legal, Historical, and Diplomatic Perspectives (Dorddrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000); Elizabeth Shepherd and Geoffrey Yeo, Managing Records: A Handbook of Principles and Practice (London: Facet Publishing, 2003).
  20. My main summary of this research is Managing Records as Evidence and Information (Westport, Conn: Quorum Books, 2001).
  21. Heather MacNeil, Trusting Records: Legal, Historical, and Diplomatic Perspectives (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), xi.
  22. MacNeil, Trusting Records, 96, 98.
  23. David M. Levy, Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001), 23. The other book is John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000).
  24. Levy, Scrolling Forward, 38.
  25. Robert M. Thorson, Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls (New York: Walker and Co., 2002), 1, 9, 229.
  26. Alberto Manguel, Reading Pictures: What We Think About When We Look at Art (New York: Random House, 2002; org. pub. 2000), 149.
  27. R. F. Foster, The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 211.
  28. Brown and Duguid, The Social Life of Information, 1, 16, 32.
  29. Michael Pollan, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (New York: Random House, 1997), 54.
  30. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 3.
  31. Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How An Amateur Meterologist Forged the Language of the Skies (New York: Picador USA/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 11.
  32. Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the Aids Experience, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 10.
  33. David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 6.
  34. Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 9.
  35. Robert Darnton, “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” American Historical Review 105 (February 2000), available at
  36. Noel C. Paul, “Scholars Scour eBay,” Christian Science Monitor, January 14, 2003, at, accessed January 16, 2003.
  37. Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 135.
  38. Nicholson Baker, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (New York: Random House, 2001); my own response is Vandals in the Stacks? A Response to Nicholson Baker’s Assault on Libraries (Westport, Conn,: Greenwood Press, 2002).
  39. Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998).
  40. Jane Tompkins, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1996), 218.
  41. Bruce Sterling, Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 2002), 26.
  42. Amir D. Aczel, The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention That Changed the World (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 2001), 27.