The record that time forgot

Section of rock strata, image library reference COAL 13/3

Section of rock strata, image library reference COAL 13/3

For my first ever blog for The National Archives I wrote about the fossil record, and it seems apt that my last ever blog is about the geological record. A little while ago I was asked to take part in a podcast by James Lappin to try to answer the question of whether or not the earth can be regarded as a record-keeping system, on the grounds that it keeps the geological record. The podcast is available at the Information and Records Management Society podcast series website, and forms part of a series of conversations James has planned with notable experts in information and records management.

I’m not a geologist by training so my apologies to all geologists for any mistakes made. The podcast is not meant to be a definitive assessment of the geological record; rather it is a thought exercise in understanding what are the characteristics of a record-keeping system and what other types of data or information might be considered in the same way. One of the key things we looked to explore is whether the geological record could be aligned with what the International Standard on Records Management (ISO 15489) states a record-keeping system should look like. In particular, the conversation focused on the concept of records as permanent and unchangeable, and how record-keeping systems are used to keep records as they were.  Our conclusions were that as the geological record is a record of constant change it doesn’t work in the same way.

The idea I developed in this conversation with James is that what the geological record does share with information and the influence of change is that re-use and adaptation are the basis of geology. So for certain types of digital information, which is maintained to provide for re-use and change, there are analogies with what is left within the geological record as evidence of change.

For me the most interesting part of conversation came near the end where James asked me if there was anything in a human context that was comparable to the geological record. I was fairly sure when I started answering the question that there wasn’t any traditional record-keeping system that matched the geological record in terms of its size and the extent of information it contains, and how easily and often that gets changed. But as I answered the question it occurred to me there is one (or in reality many) repositories for information that, whilst not managed as a record-keeping system, does indeed reflect the enormity of the geological record. The internet by now is so fast and so ever-changing, and it isn’t controllable by a single body or group. The shifts and changes in its content and structures could be seen as being incredibly analogous to the geological record.

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