Conference Summary

Modern Records: challenges and opportunities

With the theme of ‘Modern Records: Challenges and Opportunities’, the Religious Archives Group Conference was held at the British Library on Monday 22nd March. The day saw an interesting range of presentations from both professional archivists and those who use archives, culminating in a lively presentation from the West Midlands Rastafari Heritage Team. This presentation was something of a departure from the traditional realm of the Religious Archives Group Conference but was particularly interesting as not only did it demonstrate the actual outcomes that can be achieved through the use of well organised and accessible archives, but also highlighted the fact that heritage projects can be a wonderful way of bringing disparate groups of people together.

A particularly daunting task was set for Susan Healy from the National Archives, who presented on the very relevant but technical minefield of Data Protection. This term is most commonly associated with modern records, but Susan drew attention to the fact that Data Protection is also relevant to some archival records as well.

Indeed it was apparent from the other presentations on the day that there are many issues in common for modern records, the records management sense of the term, and archives. This was perhaps best exemplified by Clive Field’s presentation on the British Religion in Numbers Project, which is using both modern and historic records to create a modern record and research tool. The experiences of the project were also used to demonstrate the challenges presented by poor data quality and lost records.Talks by Julia Hudson, from the Religious Society of Friends, and Declan Kelly, from the Church of England, explored in greater depth these challenges from the point of view of the Records Manager.

Five main themes emerged from these presentations:

  • The modern dilemma posed by the fast moving and eclectic nature of faith and the administration of faith, and the means by which this is being publicised and documented. The main issue arising from this is how to capture these records effectively. An interesting presentation by William Kay on Pentecostalism highlighted the variety of these new media challenges and a welcome willingness to embrace them.
  • The idea of a ‘Principled Approach’ to records management. Perhaps the most important aspect of this approach is the need to recognise that electronic and paper record formats are of equal value and that essentially the same principles and theory apply to the records regardless of their format.
  • Relating records management to both the organisation’s administrative and business needs. The importance of a records management policy was highlighted as integral to achieving this. Such a policy can outline the responsibility and even an obligation to manage records appropriately and in accordance with best practice and legislation.
  • Julia Hudson from the Society of Friends also talked about records custodians and a records management group with departmental representatives. This was indicative of the fourth theme to emerge from the day, which was the need to involve staff in the records management process.
  • Without a good records management ethos a huge backlog of records can build up and this was the ultimate theme to emerge from the day. Such a backlog is bad for all concerned. It hinders the ability of an organisation to actually function effectively and it hinders researchers from actually researching!

Moving away from these five themes, two other ideas emerged as perhaps the strongest of the day. These were the idea that records management can be advocated as both an organisational responsibility and a faith based obligation, as highlighted by the Society of  Friends, and the idea and resultant problems of a perceived personal ownership or records by those who create them, as highlighted by Declan Kelly.

The 2010 conference was varied and stimulating, with an interesting range of presentations and speakers addressing both the theory and the practice behind modern records keeping. The RAG Committee are currently in the process of deciding on the theme for next year’s conference and all suggestions are welcome.

TAMARA THORNHILL