A Records Management Primer for Archivists

November 18, 2019
Records management is the systematic control of records throughout their life cycle to ensure efficiency and economy in their creation, use, handling, maintenance, and destruction. The records management life cycle is the distinct phases of a record’s existence, from creation to disposition. Archives and records management programs are often linked in an organization.

Records are created in diverse formats to accomplish activities, which establishes the form and content of the files. They are used by the records creators for the purposes for which they were created in the conduct of business. Files tend to grow as records are received as well as created. They then are stored and maintained. Records are retained because they are still being used regularly. The filing systems must facilitate access, and integrity must be maintained. These files are still active even though they may not be used or added to as frequently.

At a certain point, the frequency of use declines, and the records decline in value for the records creators. Several things can happen: the records can be destroyed immediately, they can be transferred to a storage facility such as a records center for a period, or they can be transferred to the archives. Materials in the records center may be transferred to the archives later or destroyed after a certain number of years. The records retention schedule spells out these determinations.

Records that have long term value for either the records creators or other researchers can be transferred to the archives. If the archives is external to the organization, ownership of the records transfers to the archives at that point. In a corporate archives that is less frequent, but in government archives, the ownership often shifts from the department or agency to the archival unit.

Records Management Objectives

The aims of a records management program are multifold. It furnishes accurate, timely, and complete information for efficient decision making in the management and operation of the organization. It processes recorded information as efficiently as possible, provides information and records at the lowest possible cost, and renders maximum service to the user of the records. Lastly, it disposes of records that are no longer needed.

Elements of a Records Management Program

A records inventory is the first stage, not dissimilar to collection analysis or even acquisitions fieldwork in a manuscript repository, and requires a survey of existing files. Surveyors identify the kinds of records that exist, filing systems, current and anticipated use, quantity, and date spans.

Records management relies on records retention schedules. Once the series is identified, the records manager, in consultation with others, must determine the life cycle for each series, spelling out what the records are, how long they should remain in the office, and what happens to the files after that active period has passed. If a series is destined for the archives, that is specified. A significant problem with the transition to electronic recordkeeping systems is that a series is no longer necessarily discrete, identifiable, and capable of being managed on an individual basis. Electronic recordkeeping systems tend to combine many series in ways that are intertwined. Attempts to schedule systems become more complicated.

Both archives and records management consider vital records protection and disaster recovery planning. Organizations need to ensure their ability to continue to do business in times of crisis.

Records management is also concerned with active file management. Records management programs must oversee the records that are referred to regularly in terms of filing systems and records creation and maintenance.

As the life cycle indicates, records become inactive at a certain point when they are used by the creating offices infrequently. However, organizations retain them, either because employees refer to them or because of other legal or fiscal reasons. Often such records are sent to the records center if they are in paper form or moved to other electronic storage systems if they are digital. These records are still the responsibility of the records manager.

Lastly, records managers think about archives management, which refers to permanent records that constitute the institutional memory of the organization. Objectives of an archives management program include identifying appraisal standards, gathering data to determine uniqueness, applying appraisal standards, and determining efficient and economical long-term protection of specified records.

Efficiency and Saving Money

If the organization does not have an archival program, what falls into the category of permanent records may also be in the hands of the records manager. While records management programs do not generate income, the efficiency aspects mean that they can save an organization money. As noted, archives and records management programs are often linked in an organization; the cost-saving aspects of the records management side support the expenses of the archives. Again, this reinforces the need to integrate archives into the life cycle.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s. Read more of Margot’s posts here, and get your free copy of Margot’s recent book for Lucidea Press, Demystifying Archival Project Management: Five Essentials for Success!

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