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Recordkeeping: what’s changed in 5,000 years?


More than 5,000 years ago a transaction took place: it involved 29,086 measures of barley and a payment term of 37 months. We know this because, carved on a clay tablet in early Sumerian cuneiform, is the receipt.

The tablet is signed “Kushim”. That’s likely a person, though it could be a job title or even an organisation – we can’t be certain. But a studious scribe, just one or two generations younger than Kushim, documented Gal-Sal as the owner of two slaves, En-pap X and Sukklgir. In doing so, he possibly gave us the oldest names on record.

It wasn’t until 600 years later that a clay cone was created, providing us the earliest written reference to a legal code. Dated to 2500-2340 BCE, it details some of the reforms introduced by Urukagina, king of Lagash and Girsu in Mesopotamia.

The reforms are strikingly progressive: they seek to curb abuses of wealth and power and protect the disadvantaged. It seems only natural that such significant change be meticulously recorded for posterity. Yet the surviving cone was clearly more political propaganda than legal document – it takes the form of a praise poem.

Recordkeeping, even writing itself, is born of commerce. Almost anywhere there’s evidence of trade, there’s evidence of someone keeping tabs on who owns what and who owes who. Perhaps it’s not surprising that freedoms and rights first appear in the written record more than half a millennium later than financials.

A lot has changed since a proto-accountant first put a stylus to clay – but some things haven’t. Business and bureaucracy still generate most of the world’s records. We’re producing them at an almost unimaginable rate and we tend to view them from a transactional perspective.

We ask ourselves what insight they offer, what value they possess, and what the cost of managing them is. We’re motivated by return on investment, risk mitigation and compliance. And, just like the ancient Sumerians, we’re often treating rights as an afterthought.

Some years ago, I helped organisations prepare for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse by identifying and cataloguing relevant records. I spent months combing attics, basements, storage units, shipping containers and sheds. At one point, I found myself in a church bell tower. The records I needed were frequently stored in crumbling, unlabelled archive boxes. Others were buried amongst unrelated documents. One was inexplicably found at the bottom of a box of Christmas decorations.

The poor records management wasn’t due to laziness, nor was it an attempt at plausible deniability. They had simply never considered it as a human rights issue.

You can never be certain what importance any given record will hold in its lifetime. But if you don’t know what records you have, how to retrieve them, and when to dispose of them, you risk impinging consumer, employee – and maybe even human – rights.

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