Records Management Tip #3: Record Keeping with an Eye toward End of the Record’s Life Cycle

How can a campus unit manage its files so that it’s ready for whatever comes its way, whether a public records request, a subpoena, or a loss of records-storage space? We’ve got some tips on creating consistent record-keeping procedures with an eye toward the end of the record’s life cycle, whether it’s destined for the archives or the recycling bin.

Often it seems that the moment you file that document away is the last time you’ll ever see it. But then suddenly your boss needs precisely that document, and she needs it ten minutes ago. Do you think you can produce that document right away? Or will you have to start at one end of the filing cabinet and pray you run into it sooner rather than later?

And the request might not come from your boss. It could come in the form of a public-records request or an IRS audit. Combing through drawer after drawer or clicking on email after email can can cost an office weeks of otherwise productive work time—especially if it’s in pursuit of a record that you could have destroyed years ago but didn’t because you weren’t managing your records with their final disposition in mind.

Or maybe your department is losing some of its office space, and you’ve got to clear out a whole room of records by the end of the week. There’s no other place to move them, so how do you know what you can get rid of either by recycling it or transferring it to the University Archives?

So how can an office manage its files so that it’s ready for whatever comes its way? We’ve got some tips on creating consistent record-keeping procedures with an eye toward the end of the record’s life cycle, whether it’s destined for the archives or the recycling bin.

Most of what follows is cribbed from the information-packed Records Management website at Dartmouth College, but slightly tailored to UNC. (You can check out Dartmouth’s page here).

A record is defined as any recorded information generated in the course of conducting business and which must be maintained to meet the fiscal, legal, historical, or administrative needs of the organization. Everything else is a non-record.

What’s important about university records, as opposed to non-records, is that university records are subject to a wide range of state and federal statutes legislating their retention and destruction. To comply with that legislation, Records Management Services is working on a new General Records Retention Schedule for the university. Its main functions are to specify length of retention for specific types of records and to specify the final disposition of those records—some records can be destroyed after a year, some only after 75 years have passed, and others are kept permanently in the University Archives.

Each campus office and department is responsible for managing the records it produced in accordance with the applicable laws and with the General Records Retention and Disposition Schedule distributed by the Department of Cultural Resources and by the University Archives and Records Management Services. (While we’re working on the schedule specific to the university, you can check out the DCR’s bare-bones schedule here.)

Every office is different and produces different types of records, but the following ‘concepts’ created by our colleagues over at Dartmouth apply to all cases.

Concept 1: Think in Terms of Series.

A ‘records series’ is the basic structural unit for organizing files. A series is a set of documents that “relates to a particular subject or function, results from the same activity, documents a specific type of transaction […], or has some other relationship arising out of their creation, receipt, maintenance, or use.” Each series is composed of several types of documents (e.g., reports, correspondence, forms, blueprints, etc.), and each series is covered by the retention schedule. A few examples of series include: Policies and Procedures records; Capital Improvements Proposals records; EPA Personnel records; and Committee, Council, and Task Force records.

Look at the retention schedule (here) and think about the kinds of records series you manage and what types of documents are part of those series in your office. Organize your records with an eye towards series. Keep in mind that some series have different retention periods for different types of documents they cover. For instance, Policy and Procedures records might include draft and final copies of policies and procedures, supporting documentation, and correspondence—but only copies of the final policy and/or procedure are of permanent value. The other documents can be shredded one year after the policy and/or procedure is adopted. If those different documents are intermingled in the filing cabinet, then you’ll be keeping most of them for much longer than one year, and you’ll waste time later on separating non-permanent documents from the final policies and procedures, which are permanent.

The significant resources spent on storage, maintenance, and processing could easily be avoided by separating permanent and non-permanent documents—even if that just means paperclipping all the non-permanent documents in a single file together, so when their retention period is up, you can easily remove them.

Concept 2: Think in Terms of Periods.

You need to make sure that you are able to quickly and efficiently purge your filing cabinets of outdated records. If you file records by subject, your filing cabinet may grow and grow, and you won’t know what you are allowed to purge and what you still have to hang on to.

To avoid this problem, it is useful to organize your filing systems so that a set “closes” on a particular date. This may mean that each year a new set of folders is created, and the older set is sent to University Archives. Thus you may have a file on a particular topic in each yearly set. If you need a record about this topic from the 1995 set, then only that file needs to be requested from the archives.

Concept 3: Aim for Consistency.

Employee turnover can lead to inconsistencies in how an office’s files are kept. This can lead to errors and inefficiencies in file retrieval—business practices are improved by the quick retrieval of only the relevant information.

New employees should be trained on current filing procedures, and those procedures should be modified only to address a well-defined and well-documented need.

Concept 4: Document Record-keeping Procedures.

The best way to ensure consistency is through thorough and adequate documentation. Each campus unit should use the General Records Retention and Disposition Schedule to create guidelines for how to file, maintain, and store those records in a way that is consistent across the unit. Providing proper documentation to a new employee will help ensure consistency, prevent confusion, and guard against the unnecessary altering of procedures.