The words we use matter. The way we frame a question constrains the way we think about it and so the range of possible answers we may find. There is skeuomorphism of words as well as of objects.

These last couple of posts have in part been about that, arguing that paper, documents and files are all words which have acquired the potential to mislead as we move to more digital and less paper-focused ways of working.

Yesterday I was at a fascinating seminar on contemporary political history in the digital age, where the transition of government records away from paper was a recurrent theme, and I was struck again by the need to look hard even – perhaps especially – at some of the apparently simple words we use.1

Listening to the discussion at the seminar, a few more words came to mind which for the moment still carry their original meaning but about which we need to start thinking differently. We are still in a world where at the end of their working life, records are transferred to an archive. Each of those words might mean something different in the not too distant future – and one already does.

Government paper records have to be somewhere. Typically, they start in close proximity to the people whose work they represent, go into long term storage somewhere more remote, but still in the custody of the organisation which created them, and then much later are transferred to the archive.2

Digital records exist ideally in a single canonical form, but are not limited by location. Every document I create at work has the potential to acquire a public web address.3 Increasingly, the question becomes one of access control rather than location. It may get a bit odd in those circumstances to talk about transfer – but because we do, we limit the breadth of thinking about ways of meeting the underlying need. That, of course, has implications for what archives are as well: they may not need to be custodians in the traditional sense (or the stage at which they become so may change), and storage, access and preservation all become very different challenges.4

The changing nature of records is a bigger issue still, and I am only going to mention two specific aspects of it, which came up at the seminar.5

The first is that more and more work is happening in – and potentially captured by – tools which don’t produce conventional files – conversations and decisions in Slack, plans and progress in Trello, training and explanation in YouTube, and so on in a constantly changing list. Some of those services better support archiving than others, but all are proprietary systems, all are primarily designed to support activity in the moment, and none of them prioritise the creation of a long-term record (though some can do it to an extent).   More obscurely, but potentially very powerfully, there is data which may have eventual historic interest in the insights which are a by product of digital services – search terms entered on, usage patterns of individual services, levels of interest in announcements. They tend to be developed as live snapshots, without necessarily creating a time series at all.

The second is that the nature of decision making is changing. Different ways of working relies on different ways of capturing and communicating information and decisions. An agile wall performs many of the same functions as a set of documents would have done in a more traditional world – does that make it a record? And if it does, how should not just the wall, but the conversations in front of it be captured?6

The point with all of this is not to jump to immediate and rigid conclusions about what the right answer might be. It is that being conscious of the assumptions embedded in the language forces us to think more carefully about the questions.7

Thanks to Helen McCarthy for bringing an eclectic and well informed set of seminar participants together and to all who contributed to the discussion

This is the third of four related posts – the earlier ones are Thinking on Paper and Paper Cutouts, and the last one is Joining the Docs.

Picture by GDS


  1.  By coincidence, earlier in the day, I had been reading a blog post arguing forcefully against going paperless, not as a matter of great principle, but on the basis that paper is still a useful tool in individual productivity. Its author, Chad Hall, noted that even now the language of physical stationery permeates the way computers are described.
  2. There is a lot of attrition along the way for documents which don’t survive to the end of the process, but that’s a different issue (though one also affected by the words we use to describe it).
  3. Potential because, for very good reasons, I am prevented from doing it in practice – though I can share it with people outside the organisation on an individual basis.
  4. This is the one about which the thinking is most mature and becoming more public, as shown by the publication this week of two important reports by the National Archives on different aspects of the digital future.
  5. Prompted in particular by a great polemical presentation by Russell Davies
  6. There is an obvious risk here that documenting the wall undermines the agility which is its very purpose. But that risk may be quite low, because it seems unlikely that a requirement to do so would be eagerly complied with.
  7. Actually the point is to create an excuse to use the phrase ‘skeuomorphism of words’, for what may be the first time on the internets anywhere ever


  1. Food for thought – thanks.
    Plus, the Terry Pratchett award for number and style of footnotes in a blog post :-)

  2. Transfer of some sort is probably still necessary for a variety of reasons. Not least that departments won’t want the cost of storing the material once it has no ongoing business use.

    Also the fragility of the data means digital material needs to be actively preserved to a much greater extent than paper. It becomes harder for end users (by this time that potentially means any member of the public of course) to read older file formats with the software they now have. Storage media needs to be refreshed from time-to-time, and steps taken to guard against “bit-rot” and to guarantee that there is full custodial history of the material to demonstrate its authenticity – even when content may have been moved into a new file format to keep it accessible.

    In a government context this is the role of the digital preservation department at The National Archives.

    1. I agree that all that is critically important and that the need for that expertise doesn’t go away. But we don’t necessarily have to draw the lines in the same place which made sense for paper records. So, for example, if TNA is the long term file store for government, is there an argument for its becoming the short term file store for government as well? There may well be some very good reasons why that’s a very bad idea (and even if it might be a good idea in principle, it might be impossibly difficult to get to in practice), but it’s still worth stopping to think whether we are getting the questions right.

  3. Really interesting post – and skeumorphism shapes legislation too. E.g. data sharing legislation, where the implied metaphor is that data is information written on a piece of paper.

    It’s technically possible for two parties to compute a new piece of information from their own inputs, without disclosing those inputs (cf. Millionaires problem in secure multi party computation). This can be (in principle with enough resources) applied to, say, mining medical data sets but with far less issues than annonymisation.

    But legally, has data been shared? I’ve never been able to get a good answer.

  4. Your points about the language changing really struck me with the idea of records being transferred to say the national archive conjure up images of a truck depositing a large amount of paper records. I am not sure anyone has the right answers about how we manage records in the digital age. However at the conference which we both attended it felt as if ideas, options and a new language of records management was being heard. I for one came out more optimistic than when I went in. Enjoyed reading your post and have linked to it on my own blog inspired by the seminar I have linked to your blog post on it.

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