Punch Card Records: Precursors of Electronic Records

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Section 2 of the 1939 Federal Records Act defines the meaning of records to preface regulations related to records disposal and explicitly includes punch cards among the record types. The definition of records from the 1939 act and from its subsequent revisions have been used traditionally and statutorily as the definition of records applied to archives. The appearance of punch cards in a list of types of records at such an early point in the history of the U.S. National Archives suggests enlightened consensus on the record nature of this then-new form of documentary material. Punch card records emerged as a by-product of the introduction of information technology in the U.S. federal government in the early twentieth century, yet the U.S. National Archives accessioned only a very few collections of punch card records. The history of punch card records offers perspective on the manner in which records creators and archivists responded to the unprecedented challenge of punch cards as a form of documentary material. A review of this history provides the basis for an interpretation of the archival mission in a technologically based records environment. This paper has its roots in a 29 October 1989 presentation at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists in St. Louis, Missouri.

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  • Margaret Adams

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