Deciding Records Retention Parameters: A Primer

Margot Note

Margot Note

July 11, 2022
Record retention is either date-driven or event-driven.

For date-driven retention, disposition takes place based on the date of the document. For example, email messages are deleted when they are 60 days old, correspondence files are destroyed when they are five years old, or records of the president of the university are offered to the archives when they are 15 years old. For event-driven retention, disposition is based on an event that starts the retention clock ticking. For example, an employee’s personnel file is destroyed 56 years after retirement, records of the president of the university are offered to the archives 15 years after the president leaves office, or contract records will be destroyed seven years after contract closeout.

Both types of retention are simple in concept but more complex in real-life implementation. In the case of date-driven retentions, records are usually dispositioned in annual blocks. In the example of the correspondence files where the records are destroyed when they are five years old, all the records from 2016 will be destroyed in 2022: a full five years after the last one was created. In the case of event-driven disposition, all the records of cases that were closed in a specific year are retired together for common disposition, no matter what year they began. In the example of contract records to be destroyed seven years after contract closeout, all contracts closed out in 2020 would be managed as a group and destroyed in 2028, no matter when the contracts started.

Date-driven retentions are the norm for correspondence files, subject files, accounting and budget files, and most management and administrative files. Event-driven retentions are more common for various case files and records of projects or other activities that span several years. However, those are not fixed rules, but guidelines adapted to specific circumstances. Automated systems, such as email, can deal better with date-driven retentions than event-driven ones. Deleting all emails over 60 days old is easy. However, deleting all emails relating to a specific contract seven years (or even 60 days) after closeout takes specific capabilities available only in records management applications.

External Statutory, Regulatory, and Legal Requirements

In archival circles, these requirements have been pulled together under the term literary warrant. The term became popular in the early 1990s and was developed originally during the Pittsburgh Project led by Richard Cox and David Bearman. The concept is simple: what is the written (regulatory or legal) requirement for maintaining records? Regulatory requirements are easy to identify, except that there are so many of them. For example, retention requirements are issued by federal, state, and local jurisdictions in the United States, and foreign governments have their own that multinational organizations are subject to. Often these can be in conflict. An additional layer of external requirements may stem from contracts of other legal agreements.

Organizations get legal assistance in developing records retention policies. Such assistance can be obtained with contracts or software that includes legal retention requirements. Once identified, these requirements are accepted as defining the minimum retention periods, although longer retentions may be selected. Most organizations would consider the risks of non-compliance too great.

Internal Legal, Fiscal, and Administrative Organizational Needs

The second factor in determining retentions is less clear than the first. In some cases (legal or fiscal, for example), the external requirements may determine the internal requirements for related records. For example, for organizations that perform work under contract with the federal government, the government would set standards for records retention of certain documentation relating to contract fulfillment.

It becomes more difficult to determine retention when there are no external requirements to consider in establishing retention requirements. For example, how long does one keep correspondence files of a division director of an organization? The process for determining retention may involve identifying the reasons that records need to be maintained, such as a need to plan for budgets, manage the program, or preserve corporate memory, and determining an appropriate retention period. Rules of thumb may include the number of years in a budget cycle, the product’s life, or audit cycles. Sometimes it comes down to what decision-makers are comfortable with. Usually, the records manager will conduct an analysis, discuss the retention needs with various stakeholders and then recommend a retention period. The stakeholders (including the general counsel) will approve the retention to meet internal needs.

Standards of Practice and Community Expectations

One of the things that records managers look for in determining retentions is what similar organizations do with similar records. There is a good bit of sharing among federal agencies, many of whom put their schedules online. The same is true for industry groups, especially those that are heavily regulated, such as the nuclear, petroleum, pharmaceutical, and power industries. Several have their own records management groups, where records managers share common practices and approaches to records management. One of the benchmarks for determining whether a retention period is realistic is how similar organizations manage the records.

The practices need not be mandatory for an organization’s business area to be accepted as a standard of practice. For example, the mandatory three-year retention of pertinent emails under Sarbanes-Oxley applies only to financial and auditing institutions, but other organizations use the three-year rule as their benchmark for retaining business-related emails.

Finally, there are community expectations. For example, when someone purchases a new computer, they may receive a one-year manufacturer’s warranty. They register their purchase with the manufacturer with an expectation that the manufacturer will retain that registration information so that they can honor any claims need. That is straightforward. However, do they have any right to expect the company to retain records about problems they fixed under warranty once the warranty expires? Of course, the company may decide that they want to keep that information to track computer problems, but that would be an administrative and research use decision.

Archivists, records managers, and other organizational stakeholders determine records retention—and the ultimate destruction or preservation of records—based on compliance with external statutory, regulatory, and legal requirements; internal legal, fiscal, and administrative organizational needs; and standards of practice (both mandatory and voluntary) and identifiable community expectations.

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.

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1 Comment
  1. Farida Silla

    Thanks!! It is useful to me , I hope to learn more as I work in archives

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