Friday, February 13, 2009

Public Records Office

My memory of the Public Records Office was a lonely old building in Cotton Tree Drive, behind the old Murray House, at the site of the present Bank of China. It moved to the Murray Road Carpark in the 70's. I visited it there once on research work and was guided to a secret room to view some microfilmed records. After the handover, I attended a training course and visited its archive of historic artifacts which was put in a large room like a warehouse. We were shown a cabinet of microfilms which was said to contain all government documents concerning the handover. The Hong Kong colonial government transferred all such records to the UK government. The HKSAR Government had to buy a set of records on microfilm back from London.

My impression of the Public Records Office is like a library and a museum. It keeps old government records for the purpose of history preservation, academic and journalistic research. The office provided much help to me when I was researching the history of some government departments. I was curious to note that such records were kept by the Public Records Office under the Government Secretariat instead of a library or museum by LCSD. It so happens that government archive in many countries are kept by government institutions instead of libraries and museums which are mostly civilian organizations.

Government records are evidence of history. It goes without saying that they must be preserved for posterity. In fact, many such records are statutory and must be maintained by the respective government departments, like land records, property records, etc. Many non-statutory records are kept by the Public Records Office. But there are so many of them that records are only kept selectively. We know that destruction of unwanted records is a difficult task because all of them must be inspected by the Public Records Office. I never know why some are kept while some are not. They are at the mercy of the Public Records Office which always delays the destruction process. I can only say that the professionalism of archiving is very sophisticated.

Later on, the record management function of the government expanded and the post of Government Records Service Director was created. It incorporated the Public Records Office and record management services under one roof. To me, it was a marriage of an odd couple, linked only by the word record. The traditional function of the Public Records Office is archiving, leading to preservation of history. Archives are documents and materials of historical interest, while records in a broad sense include living information which are constantly changing. Record management in the modern world is a science vital to the on-going operation of an organization.

All managers face the problem of record management, or in a simple word, filing. I worked in many offices and witnessed the ingenuity of officers in devising clever systems to cater for their particular needs. Besides some common topics of departmental administration, categorization of information in all departments are different. Some systems are better than others, but it all depends on the quality of the clerical staff. A section of the Government Records Services now provides training and advisory services to departments on this aspect. It is a good move in providing more emphasis on this important function. One thing I heard from staff after training was that they were reluctant to change their file index to standardize with those used in other departments. They thought the file index of a department was unique, and that there was no useful purpose in using the same file abbreviations and numbers as others. Another good move was the setting up of the Records Centre Service. Many departments were happy to have their obsolete records stored there to save office space.

Records are evolving in the modern IT age. The proportion of electronic records is on the rise. Although the big elephant government still needs much more time to get rid of paper, many important government records are now in electronic form. In the future, there will be less physical artifacts; and history will be read in databases, electronic images and sound recordings. The Government Records Services responded by setting up a record systems development office in meeting the demand of electronic records management. It is not a very difficult task given the whole world is moving in the same direction. Many new IT products in this area are emerging and best practices are easily found. I note there was a realignment of existing resources to meet this new demand. This could mean replacing archivists by professional resource and system managers.

On another aspect on the importance of record management, I attended a seminar by the Public Records Office on disaster planning. It highlighted the possible damage caused by a minor disaster which could destroy important records in an instance, leading to the collapse of a company. Thus backing up essential records is very important. This is easily said than done in the past. It is very resource consuming to back up paper records. The situation is changed in the electronic age. Almost all information systems now have backup facilities. I discussed this with some friends in the IT field. They said backup at the same site would not be safe from fire or natural disaster. Many companies now engaged the service of commercial firms by mirroring their information databases real time to another server on the Internet. Commercial backup service may not meet the security concern of government. However, OCGIO is also providing a data centre service which could help backing up electronic information offsite from departments.

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