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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education


Our Lives In Documents

by Paul Beynon-Davies 22nd October 2019

The 'record', from a birth certificate to a social media post, is an essential part of modern existence, explains Paul Beynon-Davies.

The centrality of records

Our contemporary lives can be most readily examined through records because modern life is documented through records. You are born and are issued with a birth certificate. You pass school and university examinations and are issued with certificates of scholarship. You perhaps get married and are issued with a marriage certificate. When you die your demise is recorded in a death certificate. After your death numerous records are utilised by your descendants in resolving issues of probate.

But most of these are public records that act as traces of the life a citizen experienced within some nation state. There will also be numerous instances of private and specialised records held about you. For instance, you might join the military or you might spend a period in prison or in a psychiatric hospital. In such institutional settings there will be a whole collection of records opened about you and probably used to do things with you.

Your life is documented in records but your life is also lived through records. The verb ‘to document' suggests merely the act of representation. But records are not passive devices that catalogue major events in your personal biography. They are very much active. Records prescribe what you are able to do in modern society. This means that the very notion of being able to act as an individual within modern society is normally done so through the records held about you. Hence, to open a bank account you normally have to provide record of permanent residence. If you cannot prove certain institutional facts held about you in records, you are often prohibited or proscribed from acting.

Records are boring

The record is clearly central to modern existence. The record is something of an existential token which opens certain institutional ‘doors' for us but also closes off a range of other ‘exits' and ‘entrances'.

It is therefore surprising to find that an examination of the nature of records is typically seen as a boring endeavour. This may be for a number of reasons. It may be because we tend to take three inherent positions in relation to records. First, records are accepted, second, records are considered understood, and third, records are seen as the concern purely of administrators, bureaucrats or technologists. Each of these positions, we shall show, is open to challenge.

We all tend to view records in the main as mundane and as such accept the position of records as unexamined background to our everyday existence. But because they are mundane and accepted we all tend to assume that we understand what records are used for, or at least what they should be used for. This may be because we assume records to be of interest only to the archetypal ‘record-keepers' - administrators or bureaucrats, librarians and archivists or more recently to those persons working in information technology (IT).

But records are not mundane. They are interesting and frequently mysterious artefacts. We should question the assumption that we understand truly what records are. Records, as an area of study, turn out to be something that has only been considered in a rather surface way by many disciplines and professions – even by those disciplines which should have ‘records management' at the heart of their endeavour. This is surprising in as records are such important ‘scaffolding' for modern life.
To provide such an answer we seek to develop a framework for better understanding the key purposes that records serve in human societies. Records not only have a long history, dating back probably to the dawn of human civilisation, but also make history. People throughout history and across different cultures make records with specific purposes in mind, and such purposes are the very stuff of history itself. We should also do away with the notion that records are a particularly ‘Western' construct embedded in in the operations of industrialised bureaucracies. The presence of the record across history and across human cultures suggests that they serve a very central place in what it is to be human. Although the record appears in a multitude of forms (some very strange) across human history and cultures, there are some universals of record-making and use which are consistent across time and space.

Sensemaking and sensebreaking with records

There is surprisingly little direct literature examining the nature of the record: particularly the modern electronic record. This is perhaps because the record, particularly the official record, as we have mentioned, is part of the accepted and unexamined background of our various life-worlds. However, it is particularly interesting that the increasing prevalence of our modern technologies used for managing records appears to have lulled us into a sense of complacency. Over the last six decades or so the rise of the digital computer and associated digital communications has not only increased the centrality of the record in institutional life, it has pushed the record even further into the background of our lives.

There is no doubt that such technologies have made the making and use of records easier. We can now manipulate records in nano-seconds, meaning that it is possible to have almost instantaneous access to many millions of records of various forms at the touch of a button. Frequently, we are also not conscious of making many records, as our technologies automatically do it for us. They leave traces of our existence which we may not be aware of. Therefore, the rise of digital computing and communications technology has reinforced and bolstered the central place of the record in the 'infrastructure' of modern society. But such technologies also frequently serve to obscure the place that such infrastructure plays in the life of the very people it affects.

You may think that records are produced for obvious reasons – perhaps, to inform certain persons about what is going on somewhere. But when you take a close look at records in situ and in use such certainties become open to doubt. Records get used to fulfil multiple purposes in different institutional settings. Sometimes records get used for purposes for which they were not originally intended.

Certainly records can be used to inform but about what? Records can be used as collective memory of what has happened or what is happening, but they can also be used to make things happen in the future. All records in some sense misinform as well as inform, because in the very nature of creating a memory trace the maker of the record makes a decision about what is significant to record, and, as a consequence, what is not. Hence, records are also deliberate acts of forgetting.