Do you find it difficult for people to appreciate the value of records management, and moreso, the value of your role in it? Records management is not shifting documents and boxes. The people who have collected objects and documents throughout history have enriched our lives and educated us. Its important record managers value your role and appreciate your own innate skills. Those thoughts were in my head as I developed a unique course on Developing a Digitisation Strategy for the PARBICA conference for Pacific Island Records Managers. The thoughts lead me to writing a very Pacific story to introduce strategy …
The Digital Island Story
Many hundreds of years ago there was an island on the edge of the great Pacific Ocean, known by its people as Paper Island. The Elders of Paper Island told stories of their ancestors, many, many generations before having come to the island on strong canoes from a distant western land, but this was stuff of legends now. Paper Island was small, but over the generations the fish in the sea had been plentiful, the population healthy and the people generally content.
One man, of middle age, was known by many on Paper Island as the Record Man. He was a collector of information. He talked to many people; the Elders, the fishermen, the medicine man and the women. He observed the weather and measured the bounty of the crops. He was interested in many things and had a great memory. Some people thought he was a busy body and his questions annoying, but the Elders frequently consulted him to check the details of the recent past when making decisions for the good of the people.
Record Man started to notice some worrying trends. Paper Island had become crowded and it was difficult to grow enough of the root vegetables to feed the people. The water was no longer fresh. The Medicine Man was treating more people for sickness. The Elders and the infants were dying too frequently.
Paper Island was a fragile island, battered by storms every four to five years, which could devastate the population. In the past these storms had brought to Paper Island a few men of different skin and eyes and hair, their canoes blown across the sea from the east as they had explored the oceans. These people were the Outsiders. The Outsiders told of other islands, some larger and more sheltered with plentiful water. They spoke of different plants and animals, and even different stars. They called these islands the Digital Islands.
Record Man knew that the time was coming for another major stormy season, and was concerned that the already malnourished and overcrowded people would struggle to survive. Record Man went to the Elders. He told of the trends he had seen and his concern that the health of the people, and therefore their whole culture, was at risk of dying out by continuing their life on Paper Island. He proposed the whole population of Paper Island sail to Digital Islands and start a new life in that wonderful land.
The Elders listened patiently. They told the Record Man his concerns were valid. They too had concerns, but there were many risks for their people in such a proposal. They could not support it they said, unless Record Man could provide them with a sound strategy and plan for moving to Digital Islands.
Record Man did not know what a strategy was. He did not know how to plan or what to plan. He was an information gatherer and now he was being asked to become a leader of his people. He was overwhelmed by the enormity of what he was proposing. However Record Man knew his people well. The people who went on the long voyages during the whale season knew all about building strong boats, carrying supplies and navigating by the stars. They were led by the Fisherman. The Outsiders knew a little about the Digital Islands; where they were, their plants and weather, and which ones had safe harbours, treacherous mountains amd fresh water. The Women knew how to grow the crops, and the type of plants that provided shelter and clothing.
Record Man spoke to each of these people to see if they could help him. Some did not like the idea at all. They belonged to Paper Island as had their ancestors before them. This was their land. They did not want to move, and they did not want their children to move. They did not even want to discuss the likelihood of dying out by staying on Paper Island. They wanted to ignore the growing threats and continue to live life as they had for centuries. They did not want to change.
Record Man found he had to be very careful not to make enemies as he worked out how to create a strategy. He discovered that when he talked about his Vision of a new land where the people were safe and healthy again people listened to him. They wanted that too. He asked them how they thought it could happen and they freely gave their strategies. Some thought small family groups could move to nearby small Digital Islands, others thought everyone could move to the larger distant Digital Islands, and there were many other suggestions.
When he had gathered all the possible strategies Record Man went back to the Elders with the advisors he had consulted. He called these people his Steering Committee. Each of the strategies had different Risks and it took many days of respectful discussion to listen to all opinions and decide which strategy would be the safest, most successful and sustainable strategy for the Paper Island people. There would still be risks, but the Steering Committee were confident they could prepare a plan that would reduce the likliehood and consequence of the risks.
The Vision and the Strategy told the people of Paper Islands what would be achieved and how it would be approached, but a Plan was still required. The plan would work out all the preparation that was required, how long that would take to achieve, who would be involved and the best alignment of the moon and stars on which to embark. There was a lot to think about and include in a plan, and it would need many people to share their knowledge. Once the plan was made everyone would need to be told, and they would have to all work hard together to make the move to the Digital Islands during the calm season. Record Man was excited about making the plan, but he knew he did not have the leadership or oratory skills to keep everyone working together.
Record Man spoke to the Chief. The Chief said, “This is a good strategy and my son shall be your leader. He will manage your project and help you make the plan. He is a man who thinks clearly and rationally, and can negotiate with all the people”.
Thus the plan was created, and it was a good plan. Record Man was made responsible for selecting the sacred totems that would be carried to the new land. The sacred totems were carved with the ancient stories that described how the people of Paper Island lived and the season cycles for cropping. These policies and procedures were familiar to the people, and new ones were developed with the help of the Outsiders to manage the crops in a land of new spirits.
The strategy and plan proposed to send a fleet of First Settlers; the fittest young men and women to the Digital Islands this first calm season. Once they had established a home base a small number would return to guide the rest of the people to their new homeland. It was a sound strategy, but certain knowledge of great value to the community and great status to the individual was held by only a few, and many of these were older people who would not be on the first voyage. The Medicine Man had traditionally passed his knowledge to his sons, and used it to care for the entire village. The Medicine Man was very old, his son needed to care for the Elders remaining on Paper Island and his young grandson was too young to man the canoe yet. It was agreed this cultural tradition, and others would need to change and the knowledge and authority to use it passed to the First Settlers to secure the best start in the Digital Islands.
And so the Digital Islands plan was enacted. The First Settlers were trained to navigate, sail, and build a new society in a new environment. They were educated in the policies and procedures of living in their environment, and learnt to adapt their culture to the new ways. The canoe was built expertly by the Fishermen and stocked by the Women with grains and roots that would survive the journey and grow rapidly when they were planted. They worked hard to be ready to sail at the first full moon of the calm season.
The test journey took place on the last crescent moon. The Early Settlers took to the canoe on a journey around Paper Island. The twin hulls rode well in the water and the sailsmanship was excellent, but the sails did not catch the lightest breezes, slowing the travel. A fast crossing of the ocean was important. Slow crossings increased the risk of being caught in storms. The Chief’s son said, “We are not yet ready. Finer, tighter weave is needed in our sails for this craft”. The people of Paper Island protested. There was not time before the full moon to prepare the pandanus and weave sails of this size.
“Then”, the Chief’s son said, “We will wait. I will not place our project and our people at such risk. We will sail on the second full moon with a sound sail”.
And so they did. Their vision became a reality through a sound strategy and a good plan. The people of Paper Island travelled to the Digital Islands and there they set up a new life. In many ways it was very much like the old one, but better. Life was safer, healthier and more secure and people had learnt the value of shared knowledge. Record Man was proud of having shaped the future of his people.