Records Retention for Archivists, Records Managers, and Knowledge Managers

Margot Note

Margot Note

June 27, 2022

Organizations are expected to keep records that reflect how the organization operates.

How long records are kept is 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.

These guidelines provide minimum recommended standards for the retention of certain records. How organizations implement those is based on two interrelated decisions. The first is the continued usefulness of the records to the organization matched against the cost of maintenance, and the second is the risks associated with the maintenance or destruction of those records.

The Ethical Component of Retention

Organizations must manage their records in a manner that enables them to demonstrate that the organization is conducting business with honesty and integrity, consistent with the public interest and their own. They also need to maintain and preserve records in case they are needed as evidence in government investigations, litigation, audits, or other legal proceedings. They also must fully comply with all applicable laws and regulations in letter, spirit, and good faith.

The expectations in the United States, for example, are that organizations manage their records to ensure they are complete, true and accurate, accessible, legible, retained as required, and fully usable. Organizations and their records managers have ethical requirements, and ethical behavior is expected. There are exceptions, but legal compliance is the norm, and organizations and records managers are expected to keep good records.

Assessing Needs

Organizations can destroy records that should be kept based on a misunderstanding of the potential value of the records. Records managers may be the “pitchers” instead of archival “keepers,” but pitching does not equate to evasion. Moreover, conditions change, and public and employee ideas of what makes a complete record may evolve, requiring an organization to rethink its retention strategy.

Retention and disposal take place on two levels. First, there is the disposal of records relating to an activity that is not perceived to be needed to provide a complete, accurate, and true accounting of that activity.

The second level is that of documentation for the activity itself. For example, we all know what documents we need to retain to support our income tax filings. We also are aware that we need to keep our records for seven years. That is the statute of limitations on when the IRS can audit people. People can keep their records longer if they wish, based on other perceived needs (e.g., historical), but seven is the minimum that is considered prudent.

Archival Appraisal Concerns in Scheduling

There are two types of archivists: corporate and collecting. Corporate archivists are employed by an organization to preserve, maintain, and exploit its records for the good of the organization. The collecting archivist collects the records of other individuals and organizations to provide historical, cultural, scientific, and other resources for others to use.

The appraisal decisions of the corporate archivist may be aligned with the retention decisions of the records manager, while the collecting archivist will go beyond the usual retention periods. The assumption is that many of the records that are important for the short-term management of operations will be valuable for the longer-term understanding of how the organization operates and how it might evolve in the future.

The role of the corporate archivist in appraisal may be more to ensure that the records are complete enough to allow for later exploitation of questions like why initiatives succeeded or failed or why leaders were more successful than others. The corporate archivist may have even more in common with the corporate knowledge management (KM) expert. Like the archivist, the KM expert wants to know how and why not for historical purposes but to recreate the success or avoid the failure in as close to real-time as possible. The archivist and the KM expert are interested in what the records contain. Records managers may be interested more in what than how or why. While the records manager will retain records of the activity, they may not include the documents crucial to the interests of the archivist or knowledge manager.

There are also differences in the second level retention decisions: what activities deserve retention.

The focus of both the corporate records manager and archivist is inward. They look to the external world to help understand their organization, not vice versa. On the other hand, the collecting archivist has a broader interest: documenting some aspect of a locality, industry, or cultural phenomenon of which the organization is a part. Records relating to community activities, advertising, dealings with other businesses, and responses to the community may not have had much interest for the records manager or even corporate archivist. However, they may be crucial to the collecting archivist who wants to document the organization’s role in the community and the life of the organization itself.

The different information perspectives offered by records managers, archivists, knowledge management experts, and other affiliated fields provide a broad spectrum to hone records retention decisions and disposition. 

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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