Is the golden age of recordkeeping over?

An archivist friend of mine (or, at least, a friend with an interest in archives, who is taking classes on the subject) wrote in his blog where he noted, wistfully, the ephemeral nature of much information on the Internet, including information about the Internet, and electronic records generally.

This brought to my mind the realization that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were, in many respects, a golden age of recordkeeping.

I note, for the record, that I’m not an archivist or an historian, and I don’t even know where I would look to see if someone else has discussed this issue in more detail, or what kind of evidence I could marshal for or against my idea.

It seems to me, though, that one of the watersheds of record-keeping was the British Empire and its vast colonies, particularly on the subcontinent. I’ve read, somewhere, that as the empire discovered that it couldn’t actually administer or control India, it instead began to collect statistics. Description, precise description, replaced control, both practically and psychologically.

You had, at the same time, the growth of the limited-liability corporation, and the growth of bureaucracy in government. These are all inter-related ideas, of course: the East India companies were among the first limited-liability companies, and imperial holdings made government much larger, creating bureaucracies of a size previously unseen in the west.

I suspect that this is when serious archiving and record-keeping got started. Before this point, you had lots of little records, lots of little archivists: this church or that church’s birth and death records, hospital records, and so on. Tax rolls certainly have a longer history, but they seem to be the exception. Records were small and far apart, and could easily be destroyed in fires or other natural disasters.

But the growth of bureaucracies created centralized authorities for record-keeping. Also, there developed the “paper-pushers” within organization. The actual creation of a product or assistance of a person was so far beyond the scope of this individual’s job that the person’s work product seemed nothing more than a vast quantity of paper.

Because the work product of so many people seemed to be the paper itself, rather than their role in whatever process the organization as a whole engaged in, I suspect that there was a bureacratic sense that preserving the paper was important. Hence vast archives of memos at major corporations: nobody wished to throw out the product of all their labor.

The advent of computers at first reenforced the record-keeping, I suspect, because the computers were used to generate more paper, and to increase the power and size of the bureaucracy. But since that time we’ve ended up in a situation where much of the “work product” never makes it off of the computer.

Until recently, at least, those computers were islands of records, like country churches and family bibles, but even more prone to destruction, data loss, and terrible obsolescence. Some people have records that stretch back decades with their computers, but much of the data produced especially more than a decade ago is simply lost.

There are two other threats to contemporary archival efforts, both cultural.

First, electronic records are quite easy to subpoena, and so corporations have data-retention policies that discourage or prohibit keeping e-mail for longer than a stated period of time. I suspect that in the future, corporations will also impose policies against keeping other intermediate work files, for similar reasons.

Second, we have become accustomed to treating the process as the product, instead of the mound of electronic data that was used to develop the end-product. This makes a lot of sense, and frankly if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I’m not sure right now how I could explain it to you. This model, useful as it is, also devalues the intermediate steps in the process, the ones that produced the most paper.

There are definitely countervailing trends, including large-scale e-mail archives for individuals (think of Google Mail’s 1GB quota), photo archives, and so on. But I suspect that the golden age of record-keeping, where corporations reified printed documents as evidence of work accomplished, is over.