Records Management Basics

 

What is a record?

  • Records are recorded information generated or received in the conduct of business, and which must be maintained to meet the administrative, fiscal, legal, or historical work of the organization.
  • Records come in all formats - paper documents, digital information in a database, e-mails, photographs, and more.
  • Not all documents are records. Examples of non-records include: transitory communications (such as e-mails about what time to schedule a meeting), reference materials (such as newspaper clippings), duplicates of records from other departments, and rough drafts.
  • It is useful to think about records from the framework of a life cycle: creation, active use, inactive maintenance and disposition.

Is It a Record?” decision tree by the University of Illinois RIMS Office, August 2015. Used with permission.

 

What about electronic records?

Electronic records pose several unique challenges and it’s important to be aware of these issues as you create and manage digital files. One major issue is that as software and hardware change over time, files become obsolete and difficult to access. Make sure to keep important records in common formats (like Microsoft Word or PDFs) that are well-supported and will continue to be updated. Always be sure that your documents are secure and backed up, and stored where you can access them. If you use removable storage, make sure to move the files regularly as storage devices can become obsolete. Give your files logical names and avoid using special characters. Provide accurate metadata where appropriate so that items can be located and determined to be authentic.

The records management program at Michigan State University has a wonderful tipsheet listing eight important steps when creating and maintaining electronic files.  

When thinking about electronic records, remember to take into account all of the locations where digital information is stored - not just your desktop computer, but also in electronic content management systems like NOLIJ and Banner.

Quick tips for using Google Drive / AODocs:

  • Use AODocs libraries, not just My Drive, for department records. This ensures that records are kept together and easy to find; that permissions are controlled adequately; and that the records stay in the college system and don't disappear when you leave the college and your account is deleted.
  • If you are part of a committee, club, or other group that doesn't have an AODocs document library, use the ITS form to request an organizational AODocs library in Google Drive. 
  • Use Microsoft Word/Excel format (or PDF) and NOT Google Docs/Sheets for documents that need to be kept long-term. These formats are more stable and reliable from a digital preservation perspective than Google Docs/Sheets.

 

What about email?

Email is notoriously tricky from a records management perspective, but there are several approaches that may work for you. Consider whether a minimal approach or a holistic approach makes sense given the types of emails your receive. 

Minimal approach: For most staff members, email contains primarily non-records and temporary records, with a small number of emails that should be retained for long-term retention and few or no emails that would pose a liability to the college (such as, emails containing confidential information). If you are in this category, you may only need a minimal approach to managing your email:

  • If you encounter an email that constitutes a record and should be maintained, transfer it to another format for retention outside of Gmail. You may choose to print the email and file it with your paper records. Or, you may import the email into your department's AODocs-managed document library in Google by clicking on the AODocs logo on the top right corner of the message. You can choose whether you wish to import just the message (in the Google Doc format), just the attachments, or both. This process will create a new folder in the AODocs location you selected, titled "Subject: [Whatever your email subject was]," containing the message and/or attachments as directed.

  

  • If you encounter an email that contains confidential information (such as social security numbers or credit card numbers), be sure to promptly delete the email when no longer needed by sending it to the trash and then also find it in your trash bin and click "delete forever" (otherwise it will hang around in the trash bin for 30 days). 

Holistic approach: Other staff members may have email accounts with a lot of records that need to be maintained, and/or contain a large amount of potentially sensitive information. If that describes your situation, it might be better for you to manage your emails within the Gmail system. One effective approach is to organize your messages into folders using labels based on (1) retention period as well as (2) topic. The records management program at the Ohio State University offers excellent guidance on email management. If you wish to export folders of emails later on (perhaps upon retirement), whether to send them to the Swarthmore College Archives or to share them with colleagues, you can export them (in the MBOX format) using Google Takeout.

 

What is a retention schedule?

A retention schedule is a document that lists types of records, the length of time each record should be retained, and the mode of disposition. Each schedule also specifies the custodian of records responsible for carrying out the schedule.

At Swarthmore, retention schedules are developed on a departmental basis. Many departments at Swarthmore do not yet have formal retention schedules. The Information Security Committee is responsible for coordinating with each department to develop a retention schedule appropriate for its administrative needs and in compliance with legal regulations.

If a legal hold is issued, this always overrides the retention schedule.

 

Does my retention schedule need to list every single document?

No. For most departments, Swarthmore uses the “big bucket” or “flexible” approach to records scheduling. That means that records relating to the same subject matter, business function, or work process are lumped together. For example, all documents in a student’s study abroad case file may be scheduled as one unit. Think in terms of developing a schedule that is compatible with your current operational procedures and filing system. As you examine what types of materials are currently in each of these files or “buckets,” consider whether there are particular documents that have permanent value and should be scheduled separately for transfer to the archives. It may be helpful to establish a separate file for easy preservation of these items. For example, if your email is currently organized with folders for different subjects or correspondents, it may be helpful to add a secondary “XXX subject - Archive” folder within each of these folders.

The National Archives has an excellent guidance document on flexible scheduling.

How do I decide if something belongs in the College Archives?

Contact the Friends Historical Library to discuss which of your records should be transferred to the archives. When containing legally sensitive materials, it is also important to consult with the Risk and Legal Affairs Office about any legal requirements related to such documents.

If I send something to the archives, does that mean anyone in the public can access it?

Not necessarily. Unless otherwise specified, the College Archives provides open and equitable access to all researchers, in line with the College’s overall commitment to transparency and accountability as well as archivists’ professional values. However, the College Archives is also sensitive to special considerations, such as privacy concerns. There are currently a variety of access policies in use in the College Archives depending on the collection. If you would like to transfer materials to the archives but have concerns about information you think should be redacted, closed for a certain period of time, or restricted to certain audiences (for example, only viewable by college staff), contact the Friends Historical Library.

How can I learn more?

Keep an eye out for training sessions to be held periodically at the college. Slides from past on-campus trainings can be found here.

We highly recommend perusing the information and resources available via the Dartmouth College Records Management Program website and the University of Illinois Records and Information Management Services website. Both sites contain thorough background on key records management topics and concepts, answers to frequently asked questions, and guidance on tricky issues such as managing email and creating a file plan. The University of Illinois even offers a series of short records management training webinars.

You may also reach out to campus records management contacts for answers to your specific questions.