Information ecologies

img0049.jpgArchives are often described as organic in nature and the material within the collections as containing organic-like relationships that archivists strive to preserve and to promote.

The organic metaphor fits nicely with the life-cycle model for records and records management: organic/inorganic; active/inactive; living/dead.

Management of electronic records and digital surrogates is casting a new light on an old problem with the organic/life-cycle metaphor: When does an active document become a record? Furthermore, does our own desire/ability to provide stewardship for a record determine whether or not it will become a part of the archival process? Are records outside of our traditional management process of less importance?

The organic/life-cycle model works best when there are clear beginnings and endings. It seeks to establish the birth, life, and death of a record at which point it becomes archival.

Many Australian archivists and some of their counterparts in Canada are promoting a continuum model to replace the life-cycle approach to records management. The records continuum model changes the organic metaphor from birth/death to ecological in its application. The information’s survival is not dependent upon our stewardship; instead, its use relies on the archivist’s ability to contextualize the information and manage it as a time/space object. The archivist’s job becomes less of a mission to preserve the information landscape and more of an undertaking to make ecological connections for our users and constituents.

To understand its practical application, a recent post by Lorcan Dempsey highlights the problem with life-cycle stewardship. Research, data, learning objects, and institutional records are less stewarded than other traditional material like books, serials, newspapers, and manuscripts. By creating better points of contact to these former materials that are intricately bound to the latter, Dempsey sees the potential for new unique resources previously out of reach for both the researcher and information professional. It emphasizes the continuing use of information, not its product.

Dempsey uses the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, an institutional repository, as an example of tool designed to provide context and access to information that does not fall neatly into a life-cycle model. This will also become more of a method to document and provide access to material that is part of the AHC History Project.