Inactive Storage of Electronic Records; Tips for Archivists & Records Managers

Margot Note

Margot Note

June 20, 2022

In the lifecycle of electronic records, inactive storage offers several challenges. One of the strengths of archives and records management in the paper world was that records managers controlled inactive storage.

Since the storage of records in office space was expensive, there was a benefit from a cost perspective in moving inactive records to offsite storage facilities. Furthermore, once the records were in offsite storage, they were under the control of the records management staff, at least in theory. Obviously, this did not always work perfectly, but the structure gave the records manager leverage in managing the records.

Storage Options

The same economics hold in the electronic world: offline storage is cheaper than online. However, in this case, the IT staff controls the storage, and their priorities are different from those of archivists and records managers. IT staff members hold ideas about long-term storage and how to manage it, usually reducing costs by moving data to cheaper storage. What gets moved to cheaper storage is based on usage or predicted usage. For example, if statistics show that most unstructured information is not accessed after 60 days, data older than 60 days is moved to near-line storage. This results in slightly poorer response time, but the user will hardly know the difference when done well.

How does this work? In simple terms, the IT department puts in a stub where the document used to be with the same metadata, so when users look for the document, they see the same information. If users access the data, the stub calls for the actual data, which is in near-line storage, and the document is presented in seconds longer than it would have taken for an online document. Older data would take slightly longer. The exact times for moving data from one level of tiered storage to another can be adjusted, but the premise is to keep the most active data online, the less active data in easily reachable but cheaper storage, and the inactive data reachable on a delay. This widespread practice is often used with email archiving systems to move emails to a central location where they can manage them, reduce duplication of messages, and control deletions.

The Need to Retain

Tiers of access make sense from the IT staff perspective, but archivists and records managers need to work with IT on two issues. First, the lack of access does not equate with a lack of need to retain. Just because records are not accessed does not mean they do not have long-term retentions attached. Using a 60-day guideline to determine what is best kept online and near-line is suitable, but equating use with retention is a fallacy. Second, once offline, records tend to be forgotten. The ongoing role of the archivist and records manager is to make sure that those offline are not forgotten, regular retentions are applied, and records remain useable throughout their lifecycle.

Managing Inactive Electronic Records

Managing inactive electronic records requires cooperation with the IT staff, something not always easy for records managers and archivists to do. The most effective way to develop a good relationship is to understand the concerns of the CIO and IT staff and explain how archives and records management can help IT by using retention and disposition.

Archivists and records managers bring strategies and decisions about retention, disposition, and preservation to the discussion. The IT department has no legal grounds for determining retention or proposing the disposal of records. They can make a cost argument, but records management brings the retention perspective: the argument that records have been assigned a retention period, the organization has agreed to it, and the program manager need not fear that if they agree to disposal, someone will come back and fault them for it later. The only fault will be if they refuse to cooperate in the disposal and the records prove to be a burden later, even if it is only to review them during litigation to verify that they contain nothing that pertains to the litigation. While archivists, records managers, and IT staff have different philosophies and priorities, they can work together to maintain electronic records throughout their lifecycle.

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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