vol. 22 no. 1, March, 2017

Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Uppsala, Sweden, June 27-29, 2016

The records perspective: a neglected aspect of information literacy

Gillian Oliver

Introduction. The power of records and record keeping is a perspective that is largely missing from information literacy research and practice. As records are influential at all levels of human existence, the consequences of not addressing this perspective, particularly for the least empowered individuals in society (such as refugees), can be profound. The two purposes of this paper are to raise awareness of records and record keeping in the information literacy community, and to explore why this situation has come about.
Results. Although archival or primary source literacy has been considered by the archival community (largely in terms of user education) literacy from the point of view of interacting with everyday records and records systems has not. Issues of professional identify and culture are likely to have influenced the lack of awareness of the need for records literacy in everyday life, in particular the division of responsibilities for record keeping to records managers and archivists in the Anglophone world.
Conclusions. There is a need for a research and practice agenda to introduce and embed awareness of records and record keeping in information literacy.


From the late twentieth century onwards, a defining feature of the information and library science domain has been its concern with information literacy. The resulting body of literature is vast, and there are many examples of implementations of research into practice, as evidenced by the involvement of professional bodies and the development of standards and guidelines. In contrast, there has been relatively little interest or awareness of information literacy concepts from the archival and record keeping community. This absence of awareness means that existing conceptions of information literacy do not adequately reflect issues relating to records and record keeping.

The purpose of this paper is twofold. Firstly, to raise awareness of records and record keeping issues in the information literacy research community and to emphasize the need for research and practice in this area. Secondly, to explore reasons why records and record keeping have been overlooked.

The paper begins by explaining what records are, and what records have the power to do. It then briefly summarises the body of work relating to information literacy from the archival science community, which is predominately concerned with user education services. The absence of a broader awareness of information literacy from a records perspective is attributed to the fractured nature of the record keeping community into two occupational groups: records managers and archivists. The critical need to empower individuals to understand and negotiate record keeping systems and to have the ability to develop their own archives is argued using the example of refugees. The paper concludes by calling for a research and practice agenda to introduce and embed awareness of records and record keeping in information literacy.

What do we mean by “records”?

Information or data in any format can be a record, it is what that information does or what it has the potential to do that is the defining feature of “records”. So records will include familiar documentary forms associated with bureaucracies such as official certificates, licenses, identity papers, as well as associated correspondence such as emails. These records will allow people to do things, to travel, to claim benefits. But the more mundane, everyday personal memorabilia such as photos of family and friends may also be considered records. These records will trigger memories, of situations, people and events. From this very brief list of exemplars it is not difficult to get a sense of the enormous and wide ranging power of records, encompassing every aspect of human existence. They may establish legal identities and rights to live, work and be protected by societies, and also form the bed-rock of our emotional well-being and understanding of our personal histories, identities and relationships.

Records are inextricably linked to activities, and are contextually and culturally contingent. Records are evidence or traces of actions, and as such authenticity, integrity, reliability and useability are key concerns for recordkeepers. The imperative to ensure these characteristics predicates the need for specialist record keeping metadata, sometimes mistakenly categorized as administrative metadata. Referring to record keeping metadata as ‘administrative’ obscures and minimises the complexity and sophistication of the schema and protocols that need to be developed and implemented. Complexity and sophistication are necessary attributes because of the requirement to map and convey the spider’s web of relationships (between people, events, places and times as well as other records) which provide the essential contextual frame for records and record keeping.

The international standard on records management provides the following rather dry definition of records: ‘information created, received & maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business’ (International Organisation for Standardization, 2002)

However, this definition is slightly less dry if it is read with the understanding that the term ‘business’ is used as a holistic concept, encompassing all types of activities and not restricted to a very narrow interpretation of context relating only to private enterprises. Any information associated with activity can be a record, the key concern is whether it is or will be required to provide evidence of that activity either in the present time or at some specified or unspecified point in the future. Providing evidence should be similarly broadly interpreted, as situations could range from legal requirements to for example establish place of birth to social or family requirements to communicate to future generations cultural roots in different places and times. Significance motivates the need to manage information as records, but that significance may not be apparent to the persons concerned until it is highlighted by an institution or individual, whether an official or a family member. To further complicate matters, significance may only be recognized in a far distant, unimagined future, rather than in today’s time and space.

Information literacy and archival science

Concern from the record keeping discipline and community to date with information literacy can be categorized as focusing on the skills perspective identified by Addison and Meyers (2013). There is a relatively small but robust body of literature (for instance Gilliland Swetland 1998; Gilliland Swetland et al. 1999, Yakel, 2002, Yakel and Torres, 2003 among others) which is concerned with the need for archival literacy, the knowledge, skills and expertise required to research and use archival records and collections, often referred to as primary sources.

In general, concerns expressed in this body of literature relate to user education, the ability to access and use records within the context of an institution, the archives. The concept of ‘archival intelligence’ has been formulated to refer to the specialist skills and knowledge required to locate, access, navigate and use archival records (Yakel and Torres 2003). Another recurrent theme in the literature is the need to incorporate archival records in the curriculum, and this has been explored from school age (K-12) students and beyond (Gilliland Swetland 1998; Gilliland Swetland et al. 1999, Malkmus, 2008, Carini, 2009; Rockenbach, 2011). The impact of such programmes is also the subject of research and study (Duff and Cherry, 2008; Krause 2010; Bahde and Smedberg, 2012; Daniels and Yakel, 2013).

However, the literacy needed to interact with all types of records, from the official to the personal in the everyday lives of individuals, has not been addressed. One reason for this omission can be attributed to the development in North America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world of two distinct occupations concerned with record keeping – archivists and records managers. It should be noted that the characteristics associated with these two occupations discussed below are not universally applicable. Occupational characteristics and motivations associated with managing current records in other parts of the world (such as Scandinavia) can be quite different as a result of distinct record keeping traditions.

Two record keeping occupations

In the early years of the twentieth century and the emergence of the modern office environment in the United States concerns about office administration and efficiency first started to become apparent. The rise in documentation that accompanied the mass mobilization of troops in the 1930s and the 1940s and beyond provided the impetus for the development of a new occupation, records management. Thus in North America and the United Kingdom, and countries influenced by these record keeping traditions such as Australia and New Zealand two professional groups developed, both concerned with records and record keeping, but with very different missions. In the 1970s, the distinction was explained as follows:

The archivist serves the needs of the scholar, the historian, and posterity, whereas, the records manager serves the needs of business which is usually profit motivated and which is interested only in information that contributes to or protects that profit or the goals of the organization. To put it another way, the records manager is basically a business administrator and the archivist is basically a historian. (Brown, 1971, cited in Atherton 1985-86, p.43).

The principal motivator for the emergence of records management was the reduction of business costs (Dollar, 1993). Despite repeated calls for a single minded (rather than a records management/archival duality) approach to record keeping (see, for instance, Atherton, 1985-6, Upward et al., 2013) this fractured and fragmented situation continues. Thus the occupation that is most concerned with developing systems and processes to manage everyday records which may profoundly influence people’s lives and wellbeing is principally concerned with records from the perspective of the workplace, and organisational motivations for record keeping. Potential to realise cost savings for employers continues to be one of the major aims of records management even if much of the evidence of this has traditionally been anecdotal rather than proven (Bailey, 2011).

This is a very different context to the library environment referred to by Addison and Meyers (2013), where teaching information literacy skills was strongly associated with professional identity, and different again from the archival world where information literacy has been considered from the perspective of understanding and using archival or primary sources in teaching and research.

The consequence of this is that the power of records and record keeping and their impact on people’s lives is largely unaddressed in the information literacy discourse. Awareness of this specific perspective has quite simply been missing. In the English speaking world at least, one possible reason for this is that the focus of the occupational group (records management) most concerned with everyday records has been limited to a very narrow, corporatist perspective.

Does this matter?

Anne Gilliland has argued, ‘archives and recordkeepers have social and ethical responsibilities toward those individuals who are least empowered to engage with official records and record keeping practices or to maintain their own records’ ( 2015, p.2). It is in thinking about those least empowered individuals that the imperative for records literacy can be seen most clearly.

To focus on just one instance, refugees provide a prominent example of the least empowered. The information needs, practices and environment of refugees have rightly been the focus of recent research in the information literacy domain (Lloyd et al., 2013; Qayyim et al. 2014; Lloyd 2015). Not surprisingly though, records and record keeping have not been addressed in this research. However, considering record keeping issues in the context of refugees highlights further information-related areas that, if addressed, have the potential to make a major contribution to the health, prosperity and well-being of this group of individuals and help ensure that opportunities to resettle can be maximized.

or instance, being able to establish and prove identity and residence rights in a country is a pre-requisite for gaining access to the services that provide the infrastructure for daily life, from educational opportunities and healthcare to utilities, communication channels and shopping. The refugee resettlement process (which varies from country to country) may ensure that individuals are registered to participate in some or all of the major infrastructure points, but leave individuals (whose lack of understanding of new and unfamiliar ways of doing may be compounded by understandable wariness of bureaucracies and officialdom) to negotiate others. Whether or not that negotiation is successful will largely be dependent on the assistance of others, perhaps other community members who may themselves only have partial understanding (or even misunderstanding) of the record keeping processes involved, and the implications of those processes.

Then there are the precious records that are the memories of former homes and loved ones. Anne Gilliland refers to an interview broadcast on Croatian media with a Syrian journalist who identified mobile phones as being among the most important possessions someone fleeing their homeland may carry, not only because of their communication capabilities, but also because of the photographs they contain ( 2015, p.8). Thinking about the need to ensure that these photographs can be kept and shared, now and into the far distant future so that future generations may see and understand their past, illuminates an urgent need for information literacy skills, in this case relating to digital curation and archiving practices.


From the first mention of information literacy in the 1970s ( Zurowski, 1974) to the present day the interest and involvement of information and library science academics and practitioners in the concept has grown exponentially. A simple search for the term “information literacy” in Google Scholar at the time of writing resulted in a list of over 110,000 publications. Given this level of interest and involvement it is not surprising to find the meaning of the concept is subject to debate and multiple understandings abound. At the last COLIS conference, Colleen Addison and Eric Meyers identified three distinct discourses on information literacy, namely:

Of particular interest from the perspective of our consideration of the involvement of archivists and records managers in information literacy are the connections that Addison and Meyers make between these discourses and practice and the professional jurisdiction of librarians:

These perspectives are furthermore intimately connected with professional identity. The skills perspective arguably reinforces the authority of traditional librarianship to an extent greater than the others, and thus the professional identity of librarians and other information professionals (as the skills highlighted are taught in an Mlibrary and information science or other library degree, such as database searching). The other perspectives arguably reinforce the identity of the supported professions , i.e. domain experts and non-library and information science professions that deal with information in their unique way. (Addison and Meyers, 2013).

Awareness of the power of records and record keeping in people’s lives is largely unaddressed and unacknowledged in information literacy research and practice. This absence can be seen as a moral failure on the part of record keeping practitioners and researchers, a possible consequence of the contested and fractured nature of the archival science (broadly conceived) community. Given the predominant motivations to serve employers and governing bodies on the part of those responsible for managing records in current environments in much of the English speaking world, developing records literacy skills and programmes for citizens of the broader society is unlikely to be a priority for records managers working in the Anglo record keeping traditions. However, this cannot be allowed to hide or negate the need for those records literacy skills and programmes. The lack of records literacy can have significant adverse consequences for individuals, which come into sharp focus with the displacement of vast numbers of people forced to flee their homelands and attempting to establish new lives elsewhere.

It is therefore proposed to develop a research and practice agenda to identify and implement strategies to address information literacy from a records perspective. Collaboration between the established information literacy community and record keeping specialists is seen as essential to achieving positive outcomes. For that to be successful, understanding of each other’s domains and perspectives will be critical.

About the author

Gillian Oliver received her PhD in 2006 from the School of Information Management at Monash University. She is Associate Professor in Information Management at Monash University, 900 Dandenong Rd, Caulfield East VIC 3145, Australia. Her research interests are in record keeping informatics with a particular focus on information culture. She can be contacted at: Gillian.oliver@monash.edu


How to cite this paper

Oliver, G. (2016). The records perspective: a neglected aspect of information literacy. In Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Uppsala, Sweden, June 27-29, 2016 Information Research, 22(1) paper colis1607. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/22-1/colis/colis1607.html (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6oJcYgS6R)

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