Thoughts On Electronic Records Training

by wsampson

The Age of Electronicus record cover

In window of Hollywood Boulevard vinyl store, flickr user Rich_Lem

In October I ventured to three locations in Mississippi with a coworker to deliver records management training to municipal clerks. My portion of the training addressed electronic records in the state. Here I discuss strategies I used and share some thoughts on teaching what is frequently dry material for an (often reluctant) audience.

Background

A little context on government records in Mississippi: for local government, all electronic records are managed and maintained by the originating agency. If electronic records are scheduled as permanent, they’re kept with that agency forever — they don’t go to the state archives.

By contrast, there are two primary supporting resources for state agencies. The first is a tape backup service offered by us, as well as the ability to take their permanent electronic records into the state archives. The second is the counsel, services, and guidelines of the state IT department. Local government of course has our counsel with any of their records concerns, but we don’t offer any services to them.

Because few municipalities (if any) have the resources to employ a records manager, it’s not atypical for electronic records management to be distributed among all municipal employees in an ad-hoc and uncoordinated manner. Professional document or records management software is out of scope for most, since such packages are too expensive and the volume of electronic records produced is typically too low to consider the purchase. The same is true of email archiving services. Open source would appear to be ideal but those solutions really do require dedicated IT administration, which is limited for many municipal projects.

My portion of the workshop lasts an hour, and the goal was to give attendees the knowledge to manage their electronic records better than they do now. Outside of the constraint that all record management has to occur with the agency, there are a few other hurdles to teaching effectively in this hour:

  • Little foreknowledge of each municipality’s specific tech setup or electronic records management strategy.
  • Little foreknowledge of each attendees’ computer literacy.
  • No foreknowledge of attendees’ specifics jobs or the records they regularly handle.

Unfortunately these constraints were outside of my control. However as I hope to share this doesn’t mean the hour can’t be successful.

Method

I broke the material down into steps, such as setting public records apart from transitory or personal documents, basic storage strategies, security best practices, and so on. For the steps where it’s applicable, I made a list of computer skills one would need to execute that step. For example in setting public records apart from non-records, necessary skills are creating folders, naming and renaming folders, and moving files and folders, among others.

I didn’t create these skill lists until the second presentation, when it struck me that attendees may be overwhelmed or discouraged by a long hour of “you should do this” and “you need to do this.” Some of the skills I’ve listed may seem basic but I felt it was important to try to empower the audience, in this case by indicating the specific (as specific as I can be in this case) skill needed.

Records on trees

Records grow on trees, flickr user erikadotnet

When I asked for a show of hands on these I had anywhere from a handful of attendees confirming their ability to a majority affirming they knew how to perform the task. There’s a risk that those who don’t know how to do something will feel bad and decide to reject or tune out the material. I always state however that it’s okay if one doesn’t have these skills — they don’t just fall out of heaven and into your head, so it’s alright to ask someone.

Still, I’m actively reconsidering whether I should ask for a show of hands. I want to engage the audience but I don’t actually do anything with that information, so it’s not like any thing is hinging on the feedback.

After the first workshop I decided my goal was to have attendees feel like comprehensive and impressive electronic records management was within their grasp, with essentially all the knowledge and tools they already have right at hand. Even if they don’t have a listed computer skill (such as saving emails from their email client or service to a specific folder, or creating a shared drive or folder), they know specifically what they should learn in order to achieve records management. This leads to some presentation aspects.

Presenting

This is dry subject matter for most, so keeping audience attention is really the top priority and the most difficult task, especially since I present in the third hour. On the final workshop I opened by saying “My goal this hour is to bore you to death with electronic records management.” It actually got some laughs.

Establishing some kind of rapport with the audience is critical, and something I’m still working on. I ask for stories of hard drives crashing, and I tell my own. I try to tell a good story about a failed security measure. For example, the (likely) Stuxnet attack on the Iranian Natanz nuclear facilities in 2010 is speculated to have been delivered by a USB drive. This emphasizes that basic measures like good passwords and ensuring appropriate physical access are invaluable in protecting data and systems. I’m still fishing around for something more local.

Amy Rudersdorf at NCDCR.gov, who I met at the Digital Preservation Outreach and Education (DPOE) beta workshop, mentioned passing around a bag of dead electronic media. We have an 8″ floppy we show, and I’d like to collect other media for the next round.

I also emphasize that a lot of the material covered, like creating a backup plan, basic data protection, etc., are just as applicable to their personal data as their work data — protecting their digital photos, their email and their documents. While there are different issues in managing electronic public records versus electronic personal data — especially when it comes to cloud storage — there is more alike than not in my opinion.

On that note, one activity may be to ask audience members who has the oldest media at home. Does anyone have music on audio cassette or vinyl? Store data on floppies or Zip disks? Video or print on any kind of film? None of that is bad of course, but it could help to get them to consider the how long that material can continue to be used, and if it’s at all possible to make a copy.

broken cassettes

obsolete media, flickr user EssG

Another activity is to have the presentation laptop shared with a volunteer. Minimize the presentation software and have an example file or two on the desktop. Let the volunteer make a folder on the desktop and copy a file into the folder. Now, have the volunteer move a second file into the folder (thus maintaining only one copy of the file), then rename the folder, and finally then put the renamed folder in a new folder they create. On the face of it this seems awfully pedestrian but it allows someone to demonstrate their ability, and if there are others in the crowd who are unable to do these tasks, it will illustrate how they are done.

Just to emphasize, other audiences may be more technically advanced than what I’m covering here. They may have access to, or be able to consider, professional management software, or they may have access to a considerable IT force.

The intention for my audience is to have attendees know that organized use of basic computer abilities is all it takes to competently manage electronic records in full compliance of state law. That is, minimum requirements will be met. I do not go into hashes and I only touch briefly on audit trails (in the context of a legal hold, or in advising use of the author and organization fields in Word, Adobe, etc.). There is not enough time to cover more detailed topics, as this is a 101 session.

Conclusion

Electronic records training can be delivered to a novice audience, even if you don’t know as much about them as you would like. My two main strategies here were:

  • Breaking down electronic records management into steps (setting records aside, creating a storage strategy, writing a policy, etc.).
  • Providing specific computer skills for each step where applicable.
  • Demonstrate these skills for the audience where you can.
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