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.


What about email?

Some emails are records and some are not. Email is notoriously tricky from a records management perspective, but one effective approach is to organize your messages into folders 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.


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?

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.