ICHORA 2020, DAY 1: James Lowry, “Registration across Technologies”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Re-Imagining Materiality: Three Histories of Archival Technologies.” The panelist is also a member of Archival Discourses, an international research network for the International Intellectual History of Archival Studies.

In a presentation on “Registration across Technologies: The Inscription of Value in Paper and Digital Records Systems,” James Lowry (City University of New York) guides us through the layered history of ISO 16175, “Processes and functional requirements for software for managing records,” for which the International Standards Organization has issued an update in 2020. Standards all have their own history, though this particular standard has an older intellectual history wrapped up in colonialism dating back to 1810, perhaps even to the 1600s.

ISO 16175 was groundbreaking when it was published in 2008. Originally written largely by Australian and New Zealand archivists educated and experienced in a government record system that stems from the British registry system. One of the first steps in tracking and controlling records is registration, an inscription in which a record is identified as being valuable, worth controlling, and controllable. It is the practice of recording data about a record in a register and linking the record in the register through the use of a number, inducting the record into a system of control.

The registry system was spread across the globe through colonialism and was a key part in the administrative apparatus of the British colonies. As a former archival practitioner who now teaches archives and records at Queens College in New York City, Lowry has worked in record offices around the globe and has experienced how the old standards have mapped to the newer standards. Lowry deploys a procedure manual called the Bengal Records Manual, which was very common in parts of the British empire, to illustrate his point. The current version dates to 1943, although there were earlier forms of it dating back to 1888, a period in time when administrative manuals existed for almost every administrative duty. 

Lowry concludes his paper by describing a project with the Archival Technologies Lab at the City University of New York and students from the Queen’s College MLIS program as they explored what ISO 16175 would look like if revised in-line with the Design Justice principles. “Since 16175 is about the design of records systems, what does design justice look like in records systems? When records document people and admit them or exclude them from rights, benefits, safety, care, and systems both political and financial, the systems for their creation and management should arguably have an eye towards what is just.”

Dainan Skeem

Curator (21st Century Mormon and Western Manuscripts) and Assistant Librarian, Brigham Young University

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