Why Medical Librarians Should Learn Archival Theory

Every morning when I turn on my computer and browse through my news feeds I am inundated with stories about data management, big data and data preservation. It is clear that these issues are a hot topic in information management, and that librarians need to start paying attention. Because librarians are at the hub of where research and development activities take place (hospitals, academia, private institutions), we have the ability and opportunity to stake a claim in the management of our patrons’ data creation. I’ve already discussed data curation in a previous post, but today I want to introduce some very basic principles of archival theory. These basic principles will help medical librarians (and anyone else involved in information management) understand the importance of trustworthiness, and how it can be applied to data management.


In the simplest terms, for a record or element of data to be considered trustworthy it must be reliable, authentic and accurate. If data or a record is missing one of these components, it cannot be trusted.


The reliability of a record/data element as a statement of fact. Reliability exists when a record can stand for the fact it is about (ex. why was it created?), and is established by paying close attention to the completeness of a record/data element’s form and how much control was present at the process of its creation. 


The characteristic of a record/data element that refers to the presence of all the elements required by the creator for it to be capable of generating consequences (ex. it serves a purpose and can be used to enact this purpose). Completeness also means that it (the record/data element) is the first (it is not derived from something else) and is effective in the sense that it is capable of carrying out the consequences of what the creator intended it to do. These two facets of completeness comprise what can be defined as an original record/data element.

Process of Creation

The process of creation is simply the procedure taken that governs the formation of a record/data element and the participation of the act of creating a record. This phase is very important as the process of creation is an indicator of whether the record will be complete and reliable.


Authenticity represents the trustworthiness of a record as a record.What this means is that the quality of a record represents what it purports to be and that  it has not been tampered with or corrupted. Authenticity is made up of two different components: integrity and identity.


Integrity refers to the quality of the record/data element of being complete and unaltered in any essential way. If a record/data element is altered or missing something it can no longer be considered authentic, and therefore is no longer trustworthy. 


Identity represents all the characteristics of a record/data element that uniquely identify it and distinguish it from any other record/data element. 


Accuracy of a record/data element is present when they are precise, correct, truthful, free of error or distortion, or pertinent to the matter. To clarify pertinence, archival diplomatic theory defines a record/data element to be pertinent if its content is relevant to the purpose for which it is created and/or used. For a record/data element to be accurate all four of these components must be present. 

This post only scratches the surface of one small aspect of archival theory. The facets of trustworthiness I have addressed here were originally developed to address the issues surrounding paper records. However, these principles are ubiquitous in the sense that they can be applied to the new issues surrounding the creation, management and preservation of data. Maintaining data trustworthiness is essential for medical researchers, especially when original data is required to provide evidence of their findings. I believe medical librarians have a duty to understand these principles in order to better serve their patron base as the presence of data in medical research continues to grow. With a solid grounding in archival theory, medical librarians can apply this new knowledge to the expertise they already have managing medical information. This combination of skills will help create a smooth transition for librarians as we venture (and stake a claim!) in the new world of managing medical research data.


Duranti, Luciana (1998). Diplomatics: new uses for an old science. Society of American Archivists and Association of Canadian Archivists: Scarecrow Press.

Interpares 2 Project: International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems. Retrieved from: http://www.interpares.org/ip2/ip2_terminology_db.cfm on August 20, 2012.


2 thoughts on “Why Medical Librarians Should Learn Archival Theory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s