of November 2002


by Richard E. Barry, Barry Associates

January 29, 2003*

(Rev. February 5, 2003)

1.  Executive Summary of Survey Results


I believe a statement that I overheard while at an archives that sums it up quite nicely. The individual looked around and stated "God, what are they keeping all of this old stuff for!" Hence the problem of preparing for the future and or saving the past. –Survey respondent


Archives and records centers are faced with extraordinary challenges from the massive, global growth in communication technologies and use of information in both old and new ways. The challenges go beyond traditional understandings of the skills and budgets needed for recordkeeping. Every country is experiencing huge increases in the volume of records produced for changing legal, operational and technological reasons - records that, if properly managed, can provide essential evidence of government operations, help to establish accountability and provide private organizations and individuals with useful information and research resources.


Many recordkeeping professionals are concerned that new, dynamic recordkeeping practices and technologies are not understood outside their community. They see a growing gap between reality and the perceptions of both public policy officials and the public at large – reality in which each year the recordkeeping community looses greater ground attempting to keep up with the rising pace of digital records creation. They fear that, without a change in public understanding and resources to meet skyrocketing demands, their continuing failure to cope will result in damaging losses of evidence of government operations and accountability and, therefore, of public confidence in government.


To help establish how widely these views are held, the author conducted a World Wide Web (WWW) survey internationally from the My Best Docs website between 6-11 November 2002. The Survey asked for respondents’ understandings of public perceptions of archives/records management centers and their staff. It sought to obtain an indication of perceptions and understandings of society at large and of public officials responsible for organizations that create most records and to discover how various professional disciplines view different strategies for improving those perceptions. The survey was timed to coincide with an international meeting of national archivists and heads of related professional associations on the same subject. There were 671 respondents from all regions of the world - 96% from North America, Australasia and Europe, in that order. One quarter of all respondents also supplied additional comments. Reminder: Findings reflect views of respondents; thus the first three findings below indicate respondents' perceptions of society's perceptions, which may or may not reflect the actual situation. Still, knowing how professionals perceive society is in itself important.*


·   Most respondents believe that people in society have either not yet formed an opinion of archives, records centers and the people who operate them or have a poor opinion. Similarly, most people have formed little or no opinion on the value of archives. Archivists and records managers have a divided view of the prospects for society changing in these respects.

·    Where it is seen as having an opinion, society values records mainly for their genealogical, historical, cultural and secondary information and research content (ranked 1, 2, and 3 respectively) and much less for the loftier values that professionals typically consider of importance to civil society: protection of human rights; creating and maintaining public confidence in government; enabling government by the rule of law; and promoting democracy through public accountability of its officials.

·   There is a “significant gap” between society’s understandings of the changing demands on archives/records centers and the reality of current demands.

·   Main remedies for improving society's perception are seen as those involving the archives and records management community doing more advocating or speaking out and getting others to listen, and much less doing "market research", listening and learning about the perceptions and needs of society or improving direct public access to records or other services.

·   Leaders of national, state, and local archives and professional associations, as well as some who make major use of records in their professions are seen as having the greatest leverage and potential to help make positive contributions in changing society’s perceptions. These same groups are also seen as needing to do much more to fulfill their potential.

·   Elected officials and heads of departments that produce records are seen as generally lacking in understanding and support.

·  Several “Good News Stories” are summarized in Section 4 of this report that highlight innovative approaches to outreach. In addition to building people’s understandings about records and recordkeeping, such innovations can also contribute to improved public expectations, policy formulation and legislation, and better use of records. No doubt, there are many other such stories that could and should be shared more broadly.  I

·  Inasmuch as there is still almost a year before the next international meeting of national archivists and related heads of professional associations on this subject, a more sophisticated international study and/or country-based studies should be commissioned to provide further models of best practices and, in addition to anecdotal information, other timely information on strategies for improving public perceptions. 


·  Much remains to be done to understand society’s needs and to elevate society’s understanding of and support for archives and recordkeeping among senior archivists, records managers and users of records, especially journalists and the producers of records.

·  Further work is needed on market research, advocacy, services and other strategies; but many strategies are open for action now.

·  This subject is ripe with unrealized research opportunities, including by ARM organizations, students and others in universities and private sector research centers, especially in the IT field.

*Comments on this report are welcomed. The report may be updated to reflect

  comments, in which case a revised date will also be shown; and separate papers 

  may be published as further reviews of the statistics considered. Comments to:   


Back to Full Report        Back to Home Page