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Organizing and operating an information and documentation centre

Robert HARTH

General organizational aspects

As in all tasks involving organization, the purpose of an IaD centre must be the decisive factor in determining the most rational form of organization. The IaD centre is a business concern which provides services. In organizational terms, it regulates and directs relations between the highly varied 'market' of information sources and the equally varied 'market' of Information needs. This applies equally to public and private IaD centres, but we shall concentrate here on the requirements of IaD centres In the private economy.

The 'market' concept Is used in this context to make it easier to draw parallels with other economic activities, for example trade. In commercial concerns, familiarity with the producer market and with consumer needs determine turnover and hence economic success. Optimum organization helps to keep a business's costs as low as possible.

Similarly, in the case of an IaD centre familiarity with information needs and information sources is the most important factor in ensuring an efficient information supply service. Proper organization will also ensure that the costs of this service are kept at an economically rational level.

In practice, many different approaches are now adopted to the organization of IaD centres, depending on the function they perform. Specialized libraries are frequently linked with IaD centres whose services include the provision of information and literature.

However, only IaD centres engaged essentially in providing information are dealt with below.

Activities and functions

Users expect an IaD centre to provide the following services:

A. Information through the supply of original documents, e.g.:

Newspaper circulation

B. Information on specific subjects, e.g.:

C. Current information on the state of the art through Information services, e.g. :

The activities of central specialized information establishments as independent service enterprises are on a far larger scale than those of subsidiary establishments.

The range of services required by users has a decisive influence on the various procedures that need to be efficiently combined in the work routine of an IaD centre.

Each IaD centre may be said to perform three broad functions related to the flow of information from the producer (information profile) to the user (profile of interests):

  1. acquisition;
  2. documentation;
  3. information.

An additional field 'word processing and reprography' is usually superimposed on these basic functions.

The information system as a simple feedback control system

Information systems can be represented as a simple feedback control systems (diagram 65) operating between the producer of information and the user. The feedback control system is made up of the following functions: acquisition, documentation, information and management.

The purpose of the system Is to select from a wide-ranging supply of Information the elements that match the user's profile of interests. The information system is controlled by the regulator (management) by means of constant adjustment. Changes In user requirements, for example, lead to corresponding changes in individual functions. Each and every change in and addition to the IaD task necessarily calls for an Investigation of the consequences for the entire system. A really smooth flow of information can only be achieved on the basis of an overall review of the system.

Diagram 65: Information system as a simple feedback control system

Diagram 66: Organization chart of an IaD centre

Organization chart

On the basis of the sequence of steps involved in providing an information service, an IaD centre may be divided up into the following fields:

1. Functions

  1. source collection (specialized library)
  2. documentation
  3. Information

2. Management and related fields

  1. management
  2. central services
  3. co-ordination and systems development

A detailed organization chart is shown in diagram 66. It is applicable to almost every kind of enterprise, with possible variations in the prominence assigned to individual fields.

Provision of services (dissemination of information): The problems

The services provided by IaD centres have hitherto been based essentially on primary publications. They have played a decidedly secondary role In the normal process of disseminating information through the mass media, the specialized press, specialized literature, etc. They concentrate instead on processing and organizing information in the light of users' interests. However, an IaD centre's supply of services Is in competition to some extent with the acquisition of information by users themselves. It is therefore essential, if the supply is to be accepted by the user, to ensure that an IaD centre's information potential is greater than the user's information stock. An efficient system is expected to be able to supply information from virtually all relevant sources, shedding light on the particular problem concerned. Users also expect the supply of information to adapt itself to changes in interests without entailing major expense.

The resulting qualitative expectations of a more or less anonymous 'user market' exert an important influence on the planning and efficiency of an information system.

Planning and organization

Planning is a prerequisite for organization. Analysis of interests, identification of service expectations and selection of the sources to be consulted for that purpose (information profile) provide the basic data needed for the efficient organization of an IaD centre.

The establishment and organization of this kind of operational field may be divided into the following three stages:

  1. planning;
  2. systems development;
  3. testing of the system and attainment of 'maturity'.


In the planning stage, guidelines are drawn up for the actual design of the system. An attempt is made to illustrate the interdependence of system components and user-dependent factors in the form of a matrix.

User-dependent factors   System components
scope   user
level of information influence storage
type of service desired on documentation
user frequency   sources

exercise consists in identifying the specialized field for which documentation is required. It is important to know (field - user relationship) whether the subject to be dealt with is narrow (plastics in motor vehicles) or wide ranging (car manufacturing). This will have an influence (field - source relationship) an the selection of sources to be consulted (important: existing stock and growth rate).

The next set of questions concerns the level of information for which services are to be provided. If it is exclusively for research and development purposes, this will affect the structure of the publications to be covered by the documentation (patents, research reports, scientific journals, legislation, etc.), the factual content and the detail of cataloguing. If the service is to cover a more general field of information, this will have a qualitative effect (structure of sources) and an effect on data selection (factual content, cataloguing).

In this connection, it is also useful to know the number of persons to be informed:

Systems development

The system must in any case be designed in such a way as to be expandable in any desired direction. It must be possible, therefore, to make the transition from manual documentation to mechanical procedures with the minimum disruption. The sequence is more or less as follows: selection of the optimum organizational procedure (classification, thesaurus, etc.):

Testing of system

During the test period, the system must be tested to ensure that it is providing users with a largely satisfactory service and developed until it reaches 'maturity'. The steps in the process may be as follows:

A mature information system?

The steps in setting up an information system set out chronologically above are very difficult to carry out in practice in the same sequence. There is heavy overlapping of the individual phases during the development process. User needs should be the overriding consideration in all cases during the development and testing stages.

As user needs always evolve in the light of progress, information systems are also subject to structural fluctuations. A system's 'maturity' is therefore limited in time.

Internal documentation work or reliance on outside services

As information and documentation are highly labour-intensive activities, it is advisable in designing the system to consider what kind of outside services might be used by the new information system. This calls for market analysis to determine whether IaD work is already being wholly or partially executed elsewhere. It should prove less costly to purchase required services from outside suppliers and concentrate on internal aspects of the documentation project (e.g. Independent research, etc.). Indeed the expected increase in specialized information centres, providing services ranging from print services to magnetic tape services and linking up terminals to the ADP store, will make it possible to reduce the scale of independent documentation work.

General observations on the low-cost organization of IaD centres

The following 'maxims' are key considerations to be borne In mind in organizing an IaD centre. They are Intended as a 'summary' of the preceding sections.

  1. Necessary personal services are to be organized in terms of the expertise required.
  2. Considerable division of labour, with the possible use of temporary staff or outside services where they prove cheaper.
  3. Control of steps in the work process through form-filling.
  4. Development of storage and information supply, making substantial use of external services.
  5. Full use of all opportunities for co-operative agreements with other IaD centres operating in the same field.
  6. Constant reappraisal of the work process with a view to simplification.
  7. Development of indicators through cost-benefit analysis with a view to controlling costs and evaluating performance.

Staff costs are the main component In the overall cost of running an IaD centre, accounting for about 75 to 80 per cent of the total in the case of small- and medium-scale enterprises. In the interests of low-cost organization, therefore, all measures required to fulfil users' requests must be critically investigated from the standpoint of their impact on staff costs.

2.2 Records management

Michael COOK

Not all archives services carry out a records management programme, though in principle most would have the possibility of introducing one to cover the records created by their governing authority. Where an archive service has the primary duty of serving an employing authority or institution, the records management aspect is of major importance, and affects all the processes which come after it. Records management can also be considered as a function exercised independently of archival management, but the two logically go together and either may suffer from the absence of the other.

Records management is a field which has attracted increasing attention in recent times. The growing sophistication of administrative practices, and the increasing complexity of organisations, together with the enormous expansion of the quantity of records produced, has made it necessary to introduce conscious management into this area, and to develop it as a set of techniques or as a discipline.1

Historically, interest in records management has arisen from different points of origin. In some cases the initiative has come from archivists, whose main concern is the control of material passing out of current record systems into archival care. Records management in this tradition is concerned mainly with retirement of records from currency and their appraisal. In other cases the initiative has come from organisation and methods or management advisory units, whose main concern has been the reduction of administrative costs. In other cases again the records management system may have originated in central secretariat departments, whose main concern has been to regulate the flow of information and documentary media within the central offices. There may also be cases where records management has begun with legal advisers, whose concern has been to preserve and retrieve official documents. Finance departments have also had to develop systems to serve the needs of audit.

The historical point of origin impresses its character on the resulting programme, and it may determine where the main thrust of management effort is placed. The present study takes as its starting point the view that records management is a branch of information management. The quality of the information it supplies is the main criterion for an RM programme, and this information supply is radically affected by its relationship with in archives service.

RM is a field of management whose material is the data, media and systems used in the record-making and record-storing processes in any organisation. Its aim is to achieve the best retrieval and exploitation of the data held in these media and systems, and incidentally to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of record-making and keeping processes.

The relationship between archives and records management can be illustrated by two models: Figures 1 and 2.

Two recent developments reinforce the validity of an information-centred approach to RM. One is the advent (more gradual thin at one time foreseen) of office automation; the other is the increasing tendency of legislators to introduce specific legal requirements for record retention and access.

Office automation

A useful recent summary of developments in the automation of administrative processes has been published by a working party of the Records Management Group, headed by S.C. Newton.2

This investigation divides the automation of office processes into four groups: electronic data processing; word processing; micrographics; and telecommunications. Each has a distinct influence on record processing.

Electronic data processing usually involves using a machine-readable data base. From the archivist's point of view, there are two kinds of these, the accumulated and the regenerative. Accumulated data banks consist of collections of data used as a whole at one time. Regenerative data bases are constantly, or at least periodically, updated with new information, so that there is never a moment when the information is in a definitive state. Data base management systems are in frequent use today. The Newton study gives examples of integrated ledger systems, personnel records systems, automated pensions programmes, and documentation systems containing textual records. When an organisation introduces any form of data base management, it is necessarily involved in some form of administrative restructuring, aimed at assimilating the newly necessary data processors, but also taking into account the consequences of the central data base being shared by various sections or departments.

Figure 1 Records management as a front-end system

Figure 2 Records and archives management as parallel systems

Word processors are rapidly replacing typewriters as the main means of storing words on paper. They are inherently more efficient and flexible. When an organisation introduces word processing, it inevitably finds that it has begun a process which leads, once again, to change in its administrative structures. This is because word processors are only a small step away, technologically, from integrated electronic office communication systems. In the first stage, manually generated pieces of writing are translated into formal shapes by typing them on a word processor. In the second stage, the administrators write directly on to the word processor, which is capable of transmitting their words to colleagues or addressees, and also, if required, storing them electronically. Thus a system originally thought of as meant for formalising text ends as one for transmitting it. It will be noticed that writing and transmitting messages has always constituted a large proportion of all administrative work.

Micrographics have now developed far from their origin as storage media, into technological components of information systems. Automated retrieval of data from microforms is now advanced, either by electro-mechanical means or by using computers. Computer output is also often in microform. Recent applications include pensions records, insurance claims, purchase invoice control, and incoming correspondence.

Telecommunications is likely to be important in combination with the data transmission processes mentioned with word processors. It is already technically possible to extend these automated communication systems by means of telephone lines, and this extends into the transmission of visually read data (view-data). Together with document facsimile transmission and teleconferencing, these are developments which are likely to change the whole work environment of administrators.

All four sectors of automated recording interrelate, and all are rapidly advancing. It is interesting to notice that all concern the management of information, and the media which retains it. Whether or not we are to see the advent of a 'paperless office' (and this has been questioned), it is clear that the advance of information technology has reinforced the importance of RM as central to management planning. An extreme view might be that in high-level administration only two kinds of managers are needed at the centre: the decision-makers, who rely on the data provided for them by the service; and the records managers, who devise and maintain it.

The design and retention of automated data bases is subject to statutory control much more closely than similar records kept in hard-copy form. Many governments, including the British, have appointed officials to supervise them, and have instituted legal codes to protect the individual. Data protection legislation is based to a great extent on international accords, and supplements the increasingly detailed requirements of law over other forms of record. Records managers must of course be equipped to observe the law in these respects, and to design their systems in accordance with relevant codes of practice.

All this shows that RM has an increasingly important role in an automated administration, and that the design of the records series to be generated, stored and accessed is a central concern of management.

Newton's study concludes with a model for the positioning of an RM service within an automated organisation: see Figure 3.

Legal control

The second recent development is that in all countries, but especially in North America and in the European Community, the law is taking an increasing interest in specifying the retention of records and in allowing litigation to be based upon record evidence over longer periods of time.

There is no comprehensive summary of these legislative requirements, which would indeed be difficult to assemble from a wide variety of statutes and legal decisions. A recent brief survey, also by S.C. Newton,3 covering recent changes to the law of criminal and civil evidence, and of contract, is a useful guide. J. Smith's study of the law covering records of drug manufacture illustrates the importance and the complexity of the subject as it extends into technical areas.4 Health and safety legislation has tended to specify the retention of personnel records, and to dictate the creation of records of accidents and hazards, all with long periods of currency5. As mentioned above, machine-readable data bases are specially regulated.

Figure 3 Possible organisation of a Records and Information Division

Source: S.C. Newton, Office Automation and Records Management, Society of Archivists, Records Management Group, Occasional Paper No. 2, 1981

The structure of an RM service

Records are information media which are generated by an administrative system. They include data which originated outside the organisation (for example in incoming letters), but are essentially an internal information source. Most organisations need also to provide and manage information services which seek for and use information of external origin: books and documents. No single source of information will by itself satisfy the total information requirement of any organisation, so that the RM service depends for its success on building up a workable relationship with four other facets of the organisation:

The structure of an RM service

Source. Cook6

The administration generates records which carry the information it acquires and uses in the course of business. It arranges these records in systems which are the stock-in-trade of administrative departments. The RM unit must be able to build up a relationship with these administrative units which will allow the records manager a degree of responsibility for the design and maintenance of record systems, and for the disposition of particular series. The relationship should also allow the administrative departments to become accustomed to using the RM system and to call on it for information.

It is often difficult to define the concept of administration. Most organisations have a central office, the headquarters of overall management. It is common to find that there are also important administrative centres outside this. Some will be specialist or technical departments or units; others will be branches or sub-organisations, often situated away from the main administrative centre. Processing or manufacturing units also generate records, and may be administratively distinct. If it is to deal with all these, the RM programme has to be able to enter into relationships with all the different kinds of administrative entity.

The internationally accepted model for RM within government and business administrations proposes that it should be responsible for the design and maintenance of what have traditionally been the three main types of record created.7 Under this model RM should include mail, reports and forms 'management. Mail management covers not only systems for receiving, distributing and storing incoming mail, matching it with mail sent out in reply, but also extends into the design of form letters and even into campaigns for improving the language used in official letters.

It is clear that mad management also involves the design of systems for filing. A filing system is essentially a practical application of a classification scheme covering the organisation's area of interest; but it also has another dimension. This is the control of movement of documents round the office, plotting a lifecycle for each letter. Incoming documents are filed, the file placed before the official who is to take action, and the resulting outgoing document takes its place next on the file. In this way a full and retrievable record is available on the whole transaction: but to set it out in this way involves a good deal of structural organisation in the office.

Reports should of course be succinct and accurately expressed, should conform to established standards, and be available to any proper user for reference. Forms must be well designed, must make the data they carry easily usable, and (as is often remarked today) should be understood by those who have to fill them up.

The special library service assembles books, journals and published materials, including non-book materials, on subjects relevant to the information needs of the organisation and its staff, and runs a service based upon these. The documentation centre assembles published and unpublished technical papers of relevance to the organisation and its staff, obtaining these from sources outside the organisation itself, and running a service based upon these materials. An automated documentation service, common today, provides the organisation's access to international, local or specialised data bases. Clearly, reports generated from within the organisation should also be dealt with in a documentation system.

All these services may have a similar structure, consisting of input, store, and user services. The arrangements for input differ between the different services, but it is easy to suggest that store and output could be combined. In particular finding aids, systems for disseminating information, and the arrangements for communicating data have no theoretical need to be separate.

The archives service receives all or some of its material from the RM programme, as a result of the process of appraisal. which is the interface between them. It shares with the RM programme a concern over the completeness of the documentation assembled by the system, because in the end this is what determines the value of the archive. Looked at from the other direction, the RM service uses the archives for the storage and use of its most valuable materials, over long periods.

In view of the closeness of the relationships suggested above, one could hardly suggest an RM system which does not incorporate them as an essential feature. RM systems ought to function hand in hand with the other information services.

Surveys and registers of classes

The first important job of a records manager is to find out what records are being produced by his employing organisation, and what systems are being used for their deployment.

Previous writing on RM has sometimes neglected the second half of this statement. Walk-through surveys are often recommended,8 as an alternative to, or backed by, surveys by questionnaire. These surveys identify classes of records, and note details of thew on field work sheets. This is a good way of doing a survey which notes the existence of particular records series, but it is not sufficient if the objective is to evaluate systems.

It is possible, therefore, that an RM survey should be carried out in two parts, one to establish what classes of record are being produced, and the other to determine the production processes used. The normal method in the first case would be for the survey team to use worksheets which can later be turned into a register of classes. In the second case. the survey might use flowcharts, indicating the contributory flows of manpower which lead to the production of record classes. Figures 4 and 5 refer.

Figure 4: A records survey worksheet

Records Survey Worksheet
Department Division Unit Location
Record Class
Title / Description
  Date Span
Storage Accommodation
Equipment Shelving
(lin. m.)
(cub. m.)
Floor Space
(sq. m.)
Total Office Space
(sq. m.)
Spare/Unused Space
Frequency of Reference Proportion %
Active Semi-Active Dormant
Retention Period Proportion %
Short Term Medium Term Permanent
Accrual Rate (lin. m. Per annum)
Legal Requirements Staff Involvement Value of Equipment

Source: Cheshire Record Office

Figure 5: Data capture processes in PROSPEC


1. The principal study of RM in a government context is Schellenberg, T.R., Modern archives, principles and techniques, Chicago, 1956. In a business context it is Benedon, W., Records management, California, 1969. No recent synthesis is available, but see Records management 1-9, published by the Records Management Group, Society of Archivists, 1977-date; also Cook, M., Archives administration, Dawson, 1977, pp. 25-94, and Couture, C. and Rousseau, J.Y., Les archives au XXe siècle, University of Montreal, 1982.

2. Society of Archivists, RMG, Office automation and records management, 1981.

3. Newton, S.C., 'Selection and disposal: legal requirements', Records Management 1, Society of Archivists, RMG, 1977.

4. Smith, J.G., 'Archives and the food and drug industries: a preliminary notice of proposed US legislation', Business Archives 44 (1978), pp. 31-43.

5. Miller, D., Health and safety in the conservation workshop, an information leaflet to be issued by the Society of Archivists, may start a compilation of relevant statutes.

6. Cook, M., op. cit., 1977, p. 27.

7. Cook, M., Guidelines for curriculum development in records management and the administration of modern archives: a RAMP study, Unesco, Paris, 1982.

8. Cook, M., op. cit., 1977, p. 30. Benedon, W., op. cit., Chapter 2.

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