Metadata and Electronic Document Management


Electronic Document Management allows legally recognised documents used in e-commerce transactions to be created, transmitted and stored. Without electronic document management, fast and efficient e-commerce transactions would be buried under mounds of paper documenting the transactions, or be tied up in litigation over the authenticity of the electronic originals.

In 1995 a government committee, chaired by the author, made recommendations for electronic document management in Australian Government Agencies. Here is an overview of the issues, from the report:

Electronic document management systems are more than just systems for tracking the location of electronic documents. Such systems should manage documents for their complete life cycle based on the value of the document to the agency's business. Just as there are standard procedures for the registration of paper documents and records, suitable procedures should be implemented to manage each electronic document throughout its life from creation to disposal...

From: Improving Electronic Document Management: Guidelines for Australian Government Agencies, Office of Government Information Technology, 1995, Archive copy at URL:

Requirements for Electronic Document Management

Whatever strategy is adopted, the document management system must:

Evidence for Electronic Document Management

All agencies must manage evidence. Evidence is the proof of how we acted. It is how we deal with our clients, customers, other agencies or bodies in the private sector, and how they deal with us. It is the basis from which we report to government and the voters. It is what we use to show we run our agencies efficiently and effectively. Above all it is what we use to discharge some obligation because we are held accountable for our actions...

Problems with Electronic Document Management

Design Issues

  1. Provision of context
  2. Authenticity
  3. Disposal of documents and records
  4. Robustness against organisational change
  5. Robustness against technological change
  6. Management of working documents
  7. Links to paper systems

Provision of context

In electronic systems, documents are stored as discrete entities, without any necessary relationship to other documents. In a business environment, documents rarely occur in isolation. They may, for example, be part of a transaction, part of a discussion on a topic, or a progress report on a project. They may refer to other documents. These relationships are part of a document's context. The context is important in locating and retrieving documents and groups of documents. ...


... How do we know that a retrieved electronic document is a correct representation of the original document? If we wish to use it as evidence, how do we prove that it is? ...

Disposal of documents and records

Disposal of documents and records is dictated by the archives policies applying to the agency or organisation. In the case of agencies covered by the Archives Act 1983, disposal is based on the concept of disposal classes, each of which has a designated retention period. ...

Robustness against organisational change

Government agencies are subject to internal reorganisation, splitting into multiple agencies, mergers with other agencies, and transfer of functions to and from other agencies, on a timescale which is short compared with that required for records management. ...

Robustness against technological change

Electronic documents rapidly become unreadable due to changes in hardware technology and in software. ...

Management of working documents

Although working documents are not part of the corporate store, there are situations where it might be seen as useful if the document management system has some knowledge of them. ...

Links to paper systems

Where paper and electronic documents exist within the same agency, links between documents in the two media must be possible. ...

Design Responses

For the information technology specialist, the problem is to translate these requirements into working systems. The current approach to this is to use:

Records Management

Electronic document management is a specialised form of records management. The International Standard on Records Management (ISO 15489) covers both electronic and paper records management. The international standard was based on Australian Standard AS 4390-1996, which it has replaced for use in Australia:

From: "Records management", ISO 15489-1:2001, Standards Australia 2001, URL:

Like other standards, ISO 15489 is a voluntary code of practice. However, such standards are commonly adopted by government agencies and companies to satisfy courts that their records are well kept. This is particularly important with electronic commerce, where there may be no paper records to present to a regulator or court as evidence of a business transaction. A court will need to be convinced that electronic records are well kept by an organisation for those records to be used in evidence.

Recordkeeping Metadata Standard for Commonwealth Agencies

Recordkeeping Metadata Standard for Commonwealth Agencies (RKMS) defines 20 elements (eight mandatory) and 65 sub-elements for the record keeping systems used by Commonwealth government agencies. It has similarities to the Australian Government Locator Service (AGLS) metadata standard, but AGLS was designed to improve the accessibility of services by the general public, but the record keeping standard is for maintaining internal information to keep the government functioning:

... help agencies to identify, authenticate, describe and manage their electronic records in a systematic and consistent way to meet business, accountability and archival requirements. The standard is designed to be used as a reference tool by agency corporate managers, IT personnel and software vendors involved in the design, selection and implementation of electronic recordkeeping and related information management systems. It defines a basic set of 20 metadata elements (eight of which constitute a core set of mandatory metadata) and 65 sub-elements that may be incorporated within such systems, and explains how they should be applied within the Commonwealth sphere.

From: "Recordkeeping Metadata Standard for Commonwealth Agencies", Version 1.0, National Archives of Australia, 1999, URL:

Unfortunately RKMS is not a strict superset of AGLS. Some elements map directly from AGLS. Some elements have the same names as in AGLS, but with extended definitions. Some elements have the different names from AGLS, but simialr definitions:

RKMS Elements from AGLS


Adapted from: "Recordkeeping Metadata Standard for Commonwealth Agencies", Version 1.0, National Archives of Australia, 1999, URL:

RKMS Elements Extending AGLS


RKMS Elements Differently Named

Element AGLS Equivalent
AGGREGATION LEVEL TYPE + Aggregation level

RKMS Elements not in AGLS


Standard for the Management of Electronic Records in the Victorian Government

The Public Record Office of Victoria has issued a more prescriptive standard for the management of electronic eecords than other Australian efforts, covering:

  1. System Requirements for Preserving Electronic Records

  2. Metadata Scheme

  3. Standard Electronic Record Format

  4. Long Term Preservation Formats

  5. Export of Electronic Records to PROV

From: "The Victorian Electronic Records Strategy (VERS)", 31 July, , URL:

VERS uses a superset of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) Recordkeeping metadata. VERS allows multiple encoding of one document and fixes the record at the time of creation using digital signatures. This requires new metadata to be kept separate from the document, or wrapped around the original record to form a new compound record. It also assumes that a particular digital signature will be readable over a long time and that the digital signature standards used will be supported in the long term. VERS uses text, PDF and TIFF for its standard formats.

Anecdote: Do As I Say Not As I do

A previous version of this material noted that the UK Public records office detailed a similar approach to the Australian Government, including the use of a Dublin Core derived set of metadata, for UK Government records. But the organisation demonstrated a lack of commitment by not tagging its "Management, Appraisal and Preservation of Electronic Records" document with the metadata tags recommended in the document. That changed with a later version of the document having Dublin Core tags, but with the title of the document in the tags not being correct. Recommendations have little credibility if the authors do not take the trouble to follow their own recommendations:

<title>Public Record Office | Records Management</title> ...

<meta NAME="DC.Creator" CONTENT="Public Record Office">...

<meta NAME="DC.Date.created" CONTENT="2001-03-08">

<meta NAME="DC.Identifier" CONTENT="">

<meta NAME="DC.Title" CONTENT="Public Record Office | Records Management"> ...

<meta NAME="DC.Description" CONTENT="Records Management: services for government departments and other Archives">...

From: "Management, Appraisal and Preservation of Electronic Records", Public Record Office, UK, 2001, URL:

Records Management Manual

Organisations will typically have a document called the "Records Management Manual", describing procedures to be used, paper forms and the electronic system used:

  1. As a general principle, information created on, or maintained and processed in, the University's information technology (IT) based systems or personal computers (PCs) is to be managed by observing the same practices and standards as for conventional paper-based records. Disposal and transfer of this information is regulated by the Archives Act 1983.

  2. For the purpose of maintaining a document or record in electronic systems, a document is defined to be any 'information' input, processed, stored and accessed via a computer system (see Section 103 for definitions of an electronic record and document).


Many government agencies list on their web site a subset of the metadata for records held. These lists can be found with a web search.