Records management pros are in the trenches of modern technology, but keeping pace is no easy task. Records Managers and Archivists alike work hard to keep up with the rapidly changing industry. Attending conferences, keeping up with new legislation, and networking with other records managers are all part of the job.

As we strive to plan for the future, let’s pause for a minute and focus on the valuable and fascinating history of our profession. Read these 5 historical tidbits that inspired modern records management, if for no other reason than to appreciate how far we’ve come:

  1. Records Management Has Ancient Roots. It’s not 8000 B.C. anymore, but even the people in southern Mesopotamia knew there had to be some method in place to manage records. Their commercial records have been recovered thousands of years later and include tablets of receipts, partnership formations and dissolutions, inventories, leases, purchases, sales, rentals, loans, and more. As far as we know, they’re the earliest example of a people that identified the need for records and acted to come up with a solution to retain them.
  2. The U.S. Civil War Encouraged Modern Records Management. Between 1861 and 1865, the federal government grew rapidly and thus so did its records. During this time, the need to manage these records became clear, but there was still work to be done before the nation could fully realize a viable solution.
  3. Our Predecessors Were as Frustrated by Paper as We Are. In 1877, after a fire destroyed part of the Interior Department building, President Hayes appointed a commission to investigate the records problem. The commission found troves of papers no longer needed for “constant reference” that “only add to the quantity of combustible material” in buildings.” Two years later, in his 1879 annual report, the postmaster general pleaded with Congress to provide authorization to destroy records that had been amassing in his department. The result was an appropriation act that allowed him to destroy records that had no “permanent value or historical interest.”
  4. Finally—Authorization to Dispose of Records. In 1888, Senator Francis Cockrell brought a bill to the Senate to authorize the destruction of useless papers in the executive departments. The resulting act, entitled “An act to authorize and provide for the disposition of useless papers in the Executive Departments” was passed (you can almost feel the relief of the professionals formerly swimming in a sea of records reverberating through time).
  5. U.S. Presidents Championed Early Archives and Records Management Efforts. Presidents such as William H. Taft and Herbert C. Hoover had a hand in founding records management as we know it in the United States. From Taft’s 1912 efforts to bring attention to the need for a National Archives to Hoover’s efforts to build the National Archives, the nation has long known the value of preserving historical records. Franklin D. Roosevelt followed up the efforts of former Presidents by establishing the National Archives as an independent agency. According to Clark, FDR believed archives shouldn’t just be the repository of historical records, but also the federal government’s operational records.

Knowing the historical origins of modern records management might not be especially valuable in our day-to-day life, but it can help us reflect on the reasons we need it. People have been grappling with how to manage information for thousands of years. It can even be argued that information is the one thing that will outlast humanity. The balance of preserving historical records and disposing of unnecessary records we no longer need will make the work of future generations of records managers that much easier.

Now that you’re caught up with this selective history of records management, you can hopefully more fully appreciate what the future has in store for the profession. Contact Zasio today if you want to transform your out-of-date records management program to a more convenient, modern, and intuitive solution.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is to provide general education on Information Governance topics. The statements are informational only and do not constitute legal advice. If you have specific questions regarding the application of the law to your business activities, you should seek the advice of your legal counsel.


Cox, Richard J. Closing an Era: Historical Perspectives on Modern Archives and Records Management. Westport (Connecticut): Greenwood Press, 2000.