The meaning of 'record'

Electronic records management is slowly but surely edging its way into the information technology environments of federal agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency is leading an e-government initiative for enterprisewide electronic records management. The Treasury Department's internal CIO Council has declared integrated electronic documents and records management capabilities to be top IT priorities for the department.

The process of moving the records management functions into the IT world is rendered painfully difficult by the cultural and linguistic barriers that separate records managers and IT managers.

Take a simple word such as "record." In database management, a record is a complete set of information composed of data fields; a set of records makes up a file. In document technologies, record means any information stored by any device. In workflow, a record is a collection of individual items of data treated as a unit. These are the meanings familiar to IT managers.

In records management, the term "record" carries far heavier freight. The International Organization for Standardization defines a record as "information created, received and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business."

In this sense, a record is something you can take into a court of law. And if called upon, you must be able to show in court that the record has authenticity, reliability, integrity and usability — that is, you must prove that the record is what it purports to be, that it is complete and unaltered, that it fully and accurately represents the facts to which it attests, and that it can be retrieved and presented.

This understanding of records entails being able to show in court the policies and procedures governing their capture and care — who had access to the record, how tampering was prevented and a host of other conditions, few of which occur in the usual IT context.

These different meanings cause IT managers and records managers to fundamentally misunderstand each other when using the same English word. And the term "record" is only one instance of the barriers to mutual comprehension. "Archive" is another example.

If electronic records management is to be successfully integrated into agency IT environments, IT managers and records managers must learn to speak each other's language and recognize when concepts from one field are misapplied in the other. We have a long way to go before we get to this mutual understanding.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at


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