Making decisions about the disposition of records seems like an overwhelming task. It helps to begin by surveying records.
Fortunately, most records fall into significant categories consistent from one organization to the next.
Record retention schedules contain recommendations on scheduling many records for retention or disposal. Retention schedules generally include a list of record types with a recommendation for how long to retain the record before it is destroyed or transferred to the archives. Of course, while many standard schedules are helpful, the guidelines are general and cannot address every organizational need.
Therefore, in addition to using published retention schedules, organizations must evaluate their records and determine retention periods based on the lifecycle of the records. The lifecycle of a record has three stages: active use, semi-active use, and disposition.
Active use records are materials currently in use and are referred to frequently. Semi-active use refers to the records that are not currently used but are still referred to occasionally. Active and semi-active use records are retained and stored for as long as they are helpful to the organization, whether for six months or a decade. They may also need to be retained for specific periods due to legal or regulatory records.
Semi-active use records may be stored elsewhere to make systems work more efficiently. However, very few records, if any, are actually in active or semi-active use after a decade.
Records no longer in use are in the final stage of the lifecycle: disposition. Records in this category are rarely needed for reference, legal, financial, or administrative purposes. Most records at this stage are destroyed. However, some records have continuing value and are retained for the archives.
Keeping Materials Permanently
Deciding which records have enduring value is subjective. General lists of common records to preserve, while helpful in aiding decision-making, are never the final authority in determining the permanent value of records. Records illustrating an organization’s purpose, activities, and values are archival and should be preserved. However, only a fraction of the organization’s records has lasting value. Records that contain that value answer these essential questions:
- Why and how was the organization formed?
- What were the organization’s priorities?
- How and why did the institution’s focus change over time?
- Who provided guidance and leadership within the organization?
- What role did the organization play within the community?
- What impact has the organization made?
It is important to avoid preserving only the organization’s highlights, such as awards and plaques. These mementos have sentimental value and should be retained in the archives; they are helpful in publications, exhibits, and marketing efforts because they illustrate the organization’s history. However, the substance of the organizational archives is found in records that demonstrate the organization’s goals, decisions, programs, and policies.
Digitization for Access
Digitization gives organizations a powerful tool to improve access to their semi-active and historical records. Digitized records take up little space and can be easily shared. However, digitization projects are expensive to implement and maintain and should only be entered into after researching and planning. Paper records can be put into storage and pulled out as needed for examination. They may be able to last this way for many decades. In contrast, electronic records require a commitment from the organization to prevent them from becoming outdated, corrupted, or lost. Therefore, a retrospective digitization project should not scan all of an organization’s older files, only those that still have lasting value. Suppose an organization does decide to digitize its older records. In that case, it may still want to consider depositing the original paper records and the electronic versions in either an in-house archives or an external repository.
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 Practices—the next title in our Lucidea’s Lens series.
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