Recognizing Excellence in Records & Information Management
Recognizing Excellence in Records & Information Management
The 2021 award recognizes Dr Laura Millar's sustained leadership in information and records management programme development, education, professional leadership, and mentoring.
This includes her powerful advocacy of the value of individual and collective memory and the importance of documentary evidence in decision-making, in the broader context of upholding a ‘respectful, democratic, and self-aware world’. The Emmett Leahy Committee recognized her training, consultancy, publication, and voluntary work that have not only made a positive impact on many different organisations in both the academic and professional sectors, at national and international levels, but also on the careers of individuals.
Hello, my name is Julie McLeod, and I have the honor of holding the title of Chair of the 2021 Emmett Leahy Award Committee. It’s my pleasure to welcome you all to this the presentation of the Emmett J. Leahy Award to Laura Millar for her Outstanding Contributions to the Records and Information Profession. Whilst there are some downsides to a virtual event, especially for the winner, one of the benefits is that many past winners are able to join from across the world – quite literally – making it an international event befitting of an international award.
Whilst everyone joining live today knows who Emmett Leahy was, and why there is an award bearing his name, not everyone who watches the recording of today’s event may know. And so, for their benefit, let me briefly explain.
Emmett Joseph Leahy was born in 1910 in Washington DC. He became an archivist at the US National Archives in the mid 1930s and was assigned to work as a ‘Special Examiner’, whose role was to identify records with no permanent value or historical interest that could be disposed of following approval from the US Congress. But Leahy and his colleagues quickly recognized that the lack of any systematic management of federal records made it very difficult to distinguish between records of temporary value and those of permanent archival value. He therefore sought and gained approval to establish a committee on the reduction of records, which he chaired. After analysing the practices of European archives in publications and taking a six month tour of archives around the world to learn about programs to reduce the volume of public records being created, his seminal article ‘Reduction of Public Records’ was published in the American Archivist. He and his peer Philip Brooks initiated activities called records administrationthat eventually became records management.
In 1941 Leahy became the Director of Records Administration for the Department of Navy. He was an "evangelist" for the use of microfilm to reduce the volume of paper records, and in 1945 he resigned his commission to enter the private sector, joining Remington Rand as National Sales Manager for Microfilm. Two years later he left to establish the National Records Management Council to promote and improve records management. In 1948 his recognition as a records management expert resulted in him being invited to join the Hoover Commission on the Reorganization of the Executive Branch of Government and to head a task force on the reduction of records. A significant outcome of the task force he chaired was the enactment of the Federal Records Act of 1950which, for the first time, established a comprehensive records management program for the US federal government.
In the early 1950s Leahy set up his own records management consultancy, Leahy and Company, and a very successful records storage company. He died suddenly in 1964, aged only 53 but had made such a significant impact on the records and information management profession that, three years after his death, Rodd Exelbert, editor of the newly formed Information Management Magazine, decided that he would use the magazine as a platform for the creation of the Emmett Leahy Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Records and Information Management Profession. The award recognizes an individual whose contributions and accomplishments have had a major impact on the records and information management profession. The award has been presented annually since 1967, with only one break in continuity in the 1980s, and its recipient is made by the Emmett Leahy Award Committee comprising the immediate past ten Award winners.
I hope this brief account of Emmett Leahy illustrates the significance of the award which has, over time, become an international honor as the rollcall of former winners joining today demonstrates.
The Emmett Leahy Award focuses on professional excellence and its impact on the field of information management, and for me the impact is always greatest when it is motivated by a generous spirit - a deep wish to share knowledge and to empower others. This year’s award winner embodies these qualities. I am delighted to welcome Laura Millar as the newest member of the Emmett Leahy Award Committee.
I met Laura at the end of 1992. I was in London, working jointly for the International Records Management Trust and University College London, when Terry Eastwood, then Chair of the Archival Studies Programme at the University of British Columbia, contacted me to suggest that I meet Laura Millar, who would be coming to University College to pursue her PhD. Elizabeth Shepherd and I were asked to jointly supervise the degree, and through the process of working with Laura, it quickly became clear to us that the depth of Laura’s intelligence, skill level and commitment to her values would make her an important asset to the records profession.
Over the nearly thirty years that I have known her, Laura’s skills and her ability to apply them have grown steadily, while her values and integrity have remained rock solid. Laura is endlessly generous with her knowledge. Her focus is on raising awareness of the value of evidence and on the crucial role that records, archives and data must play in building accountability, documenting identity and preserving memory. She is deeply committed to increasing the profile of records and archives management, which she sees as essential if actions and decisions are to be grounded in sources of fact. Laura is committed to helping build a world where decisions are based on reliable documentary evidence rather than on opinion or misinformation.
Much of Laura’s work as an independent consultant has focused on Canada, where she has addressed virtually all aspects of archives and records management. For instance, she played a significant role by delivering workshops in the Canadian north as a community archives consultant for the Yukon territory, travelling to remote communities to provide hands-on records and archives management guidance to dozens of heritage associations, first nations governments, museums and local governments. In Alberta, a province heavily invested in the oil industry, she focussed on developing strategies, plans, policies, procedures and tools for managing all sources of evidence, emphasising the transition to digital record-keeping. In Ontario, she supported open data and open government initiatives, while in British Columbia, she worked with the College of Registered Nurses and later with the College of Pharmacists to develop policies and procedures for digital records management.
Laura’s international work has been no less impressive. Between 1994 and 1999, she played a key role, as Managing Editor, in developing the Management of Public Sector Records Study Programme with the International Records Management Trust. This was followed by the Training in Electronic Records Programme, completed in 2009. These programmes were global in scope and were prepared with the aim of supporting countries where professional educational tools in the field of records and information management were difficult to obtain. The programmes covered all phases of the records continuum as well as the application of the principles and practices to financial, human resource, hospital and court records. They included self-study training modules, country based case studies and good practice manuals. All of the materials were made available globally free of charge.
In 2014 and 2015, Laura worked with the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to develop and lead a strategic initiative in electronic records and archives management planning. The initiative also included a study of international good practice in records and archives management aimed at improving records management within the Hong Kong Government and supporting enhanced democracy and public awareness.
Two major change initiatives illustrate Laura’s increasingly significant international role in records and information management. In 2013, following Hurricane Sandy, the UNESCO Records and Archives Division asked her to conduct a needs and risk assessment for records and archives management to help the UN continue working in an emergency. Laura developed a suite of short, clear, plain-language guidance sheets to enable UN staff to identify basic actions for improving records management and for protecting records in an emergency. This guidance is still used extensively in UN offices around the world.
In 2020, the World Bank Group Archives asked Laura to help modernise the record-keeping guidance that the Bank provided for member states and clients. She designed a records management roadmap and a practical, plain-language suite of assessment tools and guidance to help governments and public-sector organisations implement strategic improvements in records and archives management. Officially launched in July 2020, the roadmap and has been heavily used ever since. This year UNESCO asked Laura to develop a similar package, prioritising improvements for an effective and speedy transition to digital records and archives management in the UN headquarters and its offices around the world.
Laura has demonstrated her commitment to sharing knowledge in the management of records and archives globally, as a member of the editorial boards of the Association of Canadian Archivists and the Australian Society of Archivists, and as a member of the International Council on Archives’ Programme Commission and of ICA’s Diversity Working Group. Sheis also a member of UNESCO’s Canadian Advisory Committee for the Memory of the World. In all of these activities, she has worked to foster mentorship for new professionals coming behind her.
Laura’s most significant effort to date has been writing A Matter of Facts: the value of evidence in an information age. Begun in 2013 and published in 2019, this immensely consequential book addresses her core message about the essential role that reliable documentary evidence plays in accountability, identity and memory. I feel certain that the book is destined to become a classic text for the records and archives profession. Toward the end of the book, Laura notes:
Laura, at this stage, we would normally give you the Emmett Leahy Award plaque, but in these virtual times, we will be sending it to you by post.
I am honored to receive the Emmett Leahy Award for 2021. As a records and archives consultant, I delight not only in the fact of this award but also in its association with a distinguished professional, Emmett Leahy, who also worked as a consultant.
People often make assumptions about the life of the consultant. Some are optimistic: we are swimming in income; we always fly business class. Some are less generous: we are just in it for the money; we can’t “make it” in the real world. None of those assumptions is true. (I have flown business class, but only when I had enough air mile points to negotiate an upgrade.)
Emmett Leahy was a consultant, and so am I. He was an educator, and so am I. He served on committees, wrote articles for professional journals, and advised governments and businesses in his own country and around the world. So do I. And I don’t think Emmett Leahy was in it for the money any more than I am. I think that he and I both approached our careers with a similar sense of mission. Perhaps his came from his Irish Catholic background, which is an ancestry we also share. (And imagine this; I also discovered that at different times he and I both lived in Darien, Connecticut. How spooky is that?)
In 1953, Leahy established a business: part consultancy, part-non-profit institution. His vision was to provide professional advice to records creators, as well as education and training for records professionals. He also set up a series of records centers around the United States. Leahy knew that keeping valuable evidence meant protecting critical documentation while destroying miles and miles of waste. As a journalist wrote in 1960, Leahy “provide[s] the cubby holes for storage – to satisfy the hoarding urge – but continually preaches the virtues of throwing files away.”
Leahy died in 1964, at the too-young age of 53. Twenty-five years later, in 1989, Anne Thurston established the International Records Management Trust, a UK-based consultancy that supported records management services around the world. Like Leahy, Anne’s vision was to support accountability and transparency through the effective management of records. Anne and her team provided training, education, and research in records and archives management, to uphold civil and human rights, reduce poverty, and strengthen democracy.
I was honored to work as a consultant with the Trust for many years. My time with the Trust helped me crystalize my own vision of the importance of records, archives, and other sources of evidence as tools for accountability, identity, and memory. The experience also reminded me that one of the greatest benefits of consulting is not dispensing advice but learning and growing from those you encounter along the way.
I lived in England for four years, completing my PhD under Anne’s supervision and then working with her and her team at the Trust. As a student, I was “adopted” by Michael and Barbara Roper. Michael had retired as the UK’s Keeper of Public Records, and he and Barbara invited me to live with them. When I completed my doctorate and could afford to pay rent, they helped furnish my apartment, which was almost literally across the street from them. Today, my husband and I are the “Canadian” branch of the extended Roper family, and as I give this speech Michael’s grandson is here in British Columbia visiting us: it is his first post-lockdown vacation. How great is that?
On my return from England to Canada in 1996, I continued consulting, working with the Trust and other agencies, from churches and local community groups to First Nations bands and national governments. I have worked with museums boasting a half dozen volunteers and with international agencies responsible for 40,000 to 50,000 employees.
I also took on teaching and volunteer opportunities as my travel schedule allowed. One of my most satisfying experiences has been to help expand the International Council on Archives’ Mentorship program, which involved pairing newcomers to the profession with mid-career and senior professionals. My vision for the mentorship initiative was not to create a ‘teacher-student’ relationship but to bring Mentors and New Professionals together as “travelling companions,” helping to build a community of international support. I’ve been told many of the pairs have developed into personal friendships, and I love the feeling of being a matchmaker.
I know that some of the most rewarding connections in my own career have been with students and newer colleagues. As I give thanks today, let me specifically acknowledge my “chickens,” as I call them. The list of names is so long it would be faster to read out my Christmas card list. Instead, let me just mention two names, as the most recent in my ever-growing group of valued colleagues and friends. Jennifer Nangreave, in Canada, and Laura Luca, in the UK, have each helped me with projects during the pandemic, when in-person meetings were impossible and a second set of eyes, and ears, and brains, was essential to keeping projects moving smoothly. I would have been lost without the help of Jen and Laura, who are just the latest two in a 35-year-long line of students and mentees who have helped me to succeed in my consulting career.
I cannot know why the Leahy Committee decided to give me this award. I accept it with gratitude and humility. But let me tell you why I think that this award is important, not for me but as a message about the future of records and archives management in a digital world.
By giving this award to me, the Committee is recognizing the work of someone who has worked to bridge the gap between data, records, and archives. My focus is on evidence writ large: as a tool for memory, accountability, and identity, and as a source of truth and trust.
In my 2019 book A Matter of Facts: The Value of Evidence in an Information Age,my goal was to explain for the public the importance of documentary products as sources of memory and evidence. One of the most important messages in my book is that archives don’t ‘just’ exist, records don’t ‘just’ exist, and data don’t ‘just’ exist. We must all work together, from the creator of data to the custodian of archives, to protect evidence, whatever its form or shape, if we are to provide the factual basis for decision making and understanding.
Would there have been a global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement if a bystander had not recorded the murder of George Floyd in May 2020? Would the Brexit vote have changed if someone had stopped Cambridge Analytica and Facebook from disseminating false information? Will we find out the truth of the January 6th insurrection in Washington if we do not have access to social media posts, text messages, or videos? To protect such evidence in a digital age, we cannot wait for data to “become” records or records to “become” archives. We must all act now. And we must all act together.
My vision for the future is one of collaboration, cooperation, and greater public understanding. Let me offer this example as a parallel. Back at the start of the pandemic, when we were all banging pots and pans to thank hospital staff in the United States, Canada, or around the world, we were cheering everyone in the health care system: the network of service providers who work together to deliver health care to everyone in society. If something good can come from the Covid-19 crisis, is it greater public awareness of the weaknesses in health care systems around the world and the importance of supporting the work involved with keeping people alive, healthy, and safe for as long as possible.
Like the health care system, records and archives management is part of a wider system – a network of organizations, people, activities, information, and resources that help sources of information and evidence alive, healthy, and safe for as long as possible. And that data-evidence ecosystem, as I call it, is in crisis. We read about the crisis every day, with news of cyberattacks, privacy breaches, lost data, missing records, and whistleblowers’ accounts of the excessive power that private sector agencies and social media companies hold over our data – our evidence. Archivists will not fix this problem alone. Records managers will not fix it alone. The public will not fix it alone. We must work as a team.
Success will come when we strengthen record-keeping laws and regulations, build ethical frameworks into the use of information technologies, and raise public understanding of the importance of evidence for accountability, identity, and memory. Success will come when people take their own documentary evidence seriously and support the work of professionals.
By presenting me with the Leahy Award, I like to think that the Committee is acknowledging that the differences between data, records, and archives should not get in the way of our efforts to build a strong and authentic evidence base. This award encourages us all to do away with labels and instead turn our attention to our larger mission.
Emmett Leahy was known as a records management consultant. He worked to educate government officials and the public on the importance of records for efficiency and accountability. He also sought to preserve valuable archives while removing mountains of waste. His career, short as it was, was about more than records management, and about more than archives management.
Anne Thurston is known as a records management consultant. She has worked to educate government officials, donor agencies, and the public on the importance of records for integrity and trustworthiness, especially in the public sector. Her career has been about more than records management, and about more than archives management.
I am known as a records management consultant, and as an archivist. And as a writer, editor, and educator. I have worked to protect evidence in digital databases and in century-old documents, and I have worked to educate and raise public awareness. I have attempted to communicate a vision of a world where evidence – whatever its form – is valued, protected, and shared. My career is about more than records management, and about more than archives management.
In truth, though, my mission is not to preserve data or records or archives. My mission is to help foster a society where people value their individual and collective memory. Where they care about where they came from and where they are going. Where they see themselves as part of a continuum and part of a community. Where they value and respect themselves and each other.
The protection of evidence is just a means to an end. The end is personal and collective awareness, respect, and honor. Integrity, authenticity, and accountability are not just records values. They are life values.
Like Emmett Leahy, like Anne Thurston, and, I am sure, like so many of the other recipients of this award, I was not drawn to this profession for the money or the prestige. And I must pause here to acknowledge, with deepest gratitude, that I have been able to live this truly precarious life thanks to my dear husband, who provides for me financially, emotionally, and with vast reserves of patience. Especially when I lock myself away behind my computer to write yet another article or wake up at 4 am to give a speech over Zoom. (And aren’t we all anxious for an end to that part of the pandemic?)
My focus on evidence is intended deliberately to help us bridge the gap between data, records, and archives. My hope is that people will hear the word “evidence” and appreciate and respect the role and value of records, archives, and data, and myriad other forms of evidence, as the foundations of accountability, identity, and memory.
Grateful as I am for this award, my greatest joy comes from the relationships I have developed over nearly four decades, from those who supported and mentored me to those I help to support and mentor now. I reap the rewards of my career choice when I receive a Christmas card from a former student; enjoy lunch with a client-turned-friend; or stop for tea with a colleague when I am passing through town. Even if “passing through town” involves an overnight layover in Johannesburg or Singapore.
Leahy Award recipients Anne Thurston, Julie McLeod, Adrian Cunningham, and John McDonald have all come to visit us at our Sunshine Coast home. We almost got Vicki Lemieux here before the pandemic hit. You are all more than welcome. We are not just professional colleagues. We are a community. My home is open to all of you.
I thank you for this award. And I thank you for the opportunity to continue the professional and personal relationships that have been so important to me over the past four decades. My best wishes to you all.
 Dick Hoffman, “Papers Pyramid into Profits: Virtue of Throwing Files Away Is Stressed by Expert,” Chicago Daily Herald, 18 August 1960, p. 4.