Conducting a Records Survey

Margot Note

Margot Note

November 28, 2022

A records survey is a useful tool for understanding the existing records of an organization. The survey creates an inventory that reveals existing record groups, locations, conditions, and quantities. 

Knowledge of the collections enables the first step in organizing records. In addition, it serves as an opportunity to discover and correct current recordkeeping problems and to anticipate and avoid future ones.

The survey facilitates efficient recordkeeping practices. Records become easier to understand through surveying, which simplifies tasks of creating a records retention schedule and implementing an archives program. Retention schedules specify which records should be retained, for how long, and which to discard or preserve in the archives. The survey also determines the volume of records, assesses their contents, contexts, and date ranges, and identifies materials that require special handling, such as rare materials, unusual formats, or damaged items. 

The survey is most effective when archivists, records managers, or people with some record management or institutional knowledge conduct interviews of key employees who use the records. A skilled surveyor can anticipate the record types usually created or maintained by a particular function and ask leading questions to trigger information about those records. 

Departmental Analysis

The analysis of a department leads to understanding its place in the institution. A department’s functions are revealed beyond where the department may appear on the organization chart. From this insight, it is possible to identify the unique records that are created or held by the department.

Before conducting the records survey, consider the following questions: 

  • What are the department’s functions?
  • How is the department organized? Are there divisions or sections?
  • What programs or projects does the department manage?
  • What committees do the department have?
  • What is unique about the department and its functions?
  • What is most important to document about the department?

Records Survey Questions

The following questions should be considered for each records series. A record series is a grouping or assortment of records maintained together because they form a unit based on their functions or relationships with one another. Consider the following topics:

  • Department: Which unit within the organization created these records?
  • Contact: Who is familiar with the records as questions arise? What is their contact information? 
  • Record series: What is a brief, descriptive title for each group of records? 
  • Content: What subjects, events, or people are represented? 
  • Arrangement: How are the records organized? Is there an order or none at all?
  • Volume: How many materials are there? Use consistent measurements across all records series, such as linear feet, boxes, or filing drawers, when possible. 
  • Format: What formats does this collection hold? Will specialized storage or handling be necessary?
  • Condition: What condition are the records in? Are their preservation problems? 
  • Location: Where are the materials housed? Are they in the office or stored elsewhere?
  • Inclusive dates: What is the date range? What is the bulk of the records? 
  • Active use: Are the records still needed in their department? Are they actively used, such as being consulted more than once a month? Are they semi-active? Are they inactive? 
  • Values: Are these materials historical? Do they reveal important historical information about the organization’s founding, values, activities, and goals? Are they vital? Are they crucial to the organization’s existence? Should they be kept permanently after their period of active use?

Next Steps

The record survey results are used to identify specific records series for preservation. The survey is also consulted to determine the retention periods for non-permanent records and to assist a department in deciding how long to keep permanent records in the department before sending them to the archives. 

As high-level assessment tools, record surveys support a framework for managing records. They identify the various records categories created, processed, or received by the organization or a department within a larger organization. The purpose of the survey is to determine records categories users create, receive, process, or maintain in their operational or project-based work. With the knowledge gained from the survey in mind, organizations can make intelligent decisions about their records and preserve their institutional memory and wisdom. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here. And stay tuned for the release of her upcoming book, The Digital Decisive Moment: Transformative Digitization Practicesthe next title in our Lucidea’s Lens series.

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