Continuous Classification – Article by Greg Bak

Interesting recent (March 2012) academic paper by Greg Bak from the Archival Studies Program, Department of History, University of Manitoba, Canada, titled ‘Continuous classification: capturing dynamic relationships among information resources’.

Bak notes the following in the abstract to the paper:

‘Records classification within electronic records management systems often is constrained by rules derived from paper-era recordkeeping, particularly the rule that one record can have only one file code – a rule that was developed to enable the management of records in aggregate. This paper calls for a transformation of recordkeeping and archival practice through an expanded definition of records classification and through item-level management of electronic records’.

The first part of Bak’s paper discusses classification theory, and the supposed relationship between records classification and biological classification. He makes reference to Sir Hilary Jenkinson’s archival theory, to the Dutch Manual and recent articles by Kate Cumming and Chris Hurley.

He notes the problem of assuming that we can achieve a ‘perfect’ classification and quotes from a Jens Erik Mai article (‘The Modernity of Classification’, September 2010): ‘The arrangement that suits one man’s investigations is a hindrance to another’s’ – a comment that reminds me of the problems associated with file or document titling; how you might title a file or document isn’t necessary how I am (or anyone else is) going to look for it.

Bak notes, with regard to functional classification, that this is ‘not “natural” but created by archivists and recordkeepers to suit professional recordkeeping purposes, and that it better services the purposes of recordkeepers than those of records creators and users’.

He also suggests that ‘… the single-class rule (i.e., a record can only have one classification applied to it) obscures a key metric for determining the relevance or importance of electronic information resources; their repeated use, and the multiple relatonships that result from repeated use.’

Towards the middle of the paper, Bak discusses functions-based records classification, the ‘archival bond’ and archival appraisal. He notes (not surprisingly, for probably many of us) that ‘it has become commonplace among recordkeepers that users of records classifications systems – including records creators, records users and clerical records management staff – do not like function-based classification schemes, either for discovery, filing or retrieval’. Poor classification, he suggests, ‘leads to unofficial parallel recordkeeping (perhaps better termed information hoarding) either within a work unit or by individuals in their own workspace.

Bak then discusses, in a long section, records classification and electronic records management systems, and then the politics of classification. In this last section he refers to David Weinberger’s 2007 book ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’, and suggests that his analysis ‘has significant implications for records classification’.

Bak concludes the main part of his paper with a discussion of the theories of Peter Scott from the mid 1960’s, which led to the introduction of the Australian or series system. He quotes Clive Smith in relation to ‘virtual files’, in which Smith proposed that a correspondence file or dossier ‘… no longer exists physically, but only as a collection of electronic documents that are assembled through some search criteria’ that exists ‘only as long as the search is maintained’.

The last part of Bak’s paper discussions item-level management and the future of archival practice. He notes that ‘we are at a moment in archival history when digital records are compelling us to reconsider archival systems, standards and practices in light of the realities of digital information ecologies’.

Thanks to Greg Bak for feedback on the above.


One thought on “Continuous Classification – Article by Greg Bak

  1. I think classification as we practice it in the record keeping world is rnot be useful – the whole ‘file plan’ approach needs rethinking. I’m with Bak/Smith when they say predetermined files no longer exist in the virtual world. Users can create their own virtual files. And this of course has major implications for retention. Who is to say whose view of the documents is any more valid that the others? I may have a collection of documents that I have collated to answer a customer enquiry, I may want to retain that collection for a period of time before ‘returning’ it back. If the same documents appear in a collection to process an different transaction by another part of the organisation, say a permit application, do those documents take on a different retention?
    we need some clever tools to cope with this environment.

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