The International Standards Organisation (ISO) defines records as:
Information created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business.
Whilst useful in stressing the essential evidential quality of a record and of highlighting the vital role played by the record as the output of a transaction, it could be said that this definition of a record fails to adequately describe the properties which define a record.
The International Council on Archives (ICA) Committee on Electronic Records definition of a record as:
Recorded information produced or received in the initiation, conduct or completion of an institutional or individual activity and that comprises content, context and structure sufficient to provide evidence of the activity.
The International Council on Archives goes some way to addressing these short-comings by stressing three key properties inherent in all records, that is that they must possess:
- Content (ie, information or data)
- Context (ie, it must be possible to ascertain how it relates to other records and to the organisation which created it)
- Structure (ie, there must be an inherent logic to the way in which the information it contains – and the metadata which is likely to define its context – are laid out and which is ultimately interpretable by the human eye).
The result of adhering to these properties should be to create records which contain the following qualities:
- Authenticity. It should be possible to identify, and preferably prove, the process which created the record and who its authorised creator was
- Completeness. The record should contain all of the content required to act as evidence of the transaction it is documenting. This does not mean that one record must contain everything to which it relates; simply that it is complete in its own terms
- Reliability. It is important that the content of the record can be relied upon as an accurate representation of the transaction it is documenting
- Fixity. Once declared as a record its content should no longer be altered or changed in any way. It is in this way that its evidential value is preserved (by ensuring that the content of a record remains exactly as it was at creation).
Finally, it should be noted that all of the above properties and qualities can apply regardless of the record’s format, whether it be a sheet of paper, email, photograph or database entry.
Such precise definitions and their theoretical underpinnings may seem complex and largely irrelevant to practitioners at the ‘coal face’ within institutions. However, as we shall see throughout the remainder of this strand of the guide they are relevant and do have a very real and practical application.
It is largely this definition of what records are which separates them from other types of information or data, provides them with their added value and, as we shall see, defines the way in which they must be managed.