Getting Started on Records Scheduling

There was a post on SAA’s College and University Archives listserv (subscriber only, sorry) this week about a problem that is all too common in many of our institutions: The Archives is expected to keep *everything* and is not given sufficient guidance/resources to do so. The author of this post was new to SAA and wanted to see some examples of what schedules people are using for both permanent and temporary records, to give him, at least, some guidance on how to start managing the mess he inherited. Seems reasonable!

Lots of good advice and examples followed, including at least one person suggesting that this was an opportunity to advocate for more storage space! My own response, which I’m adapting for this post, is more along the lines of the famous aphorism: “Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day; light a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life.” (Wait… that’s not right. Apologies to the late great Terry Pratchett.) In other words, what should people be *thinking* about when they think about building out new records schedules?

Well, there could be (and are) whole courses on this topic. There are, in fact, proposed post series on this topic on this very blog. So this post is not so much a “comprehensive schedule-building how-to” as a “things to consider as you get started”. Even that could be way longer than I would like, so I’m going to try to shorten further by using bullet points. Ready? Follow me after the jump…

  • Look at Records Management primers/manuals to jump-start your ideas. Coincidentally, RMRT has recently co-sponsored one of these with the Lone Arrangers Roundtable! (That was lucky.) Lots of good info in there about scheduling methodology. NARA has a pretty decent one too, as you might imagine. No longer on this list: the plain-language records management resources managed by the EPA, which apparently went away with the EPA’s website redesign. Sad records-panda.
  • Beg, Borrow, and Steal. The CUA poster’s idea was a good one– don’t reinvent the wheel if someone’s put together a schedule for your records already! That said, you want to find records schedules for institutions that parallel your location and sector as closely as possible– a public university in Wisconsin is going to have very different retention periods and responsibilities from, say, a law firm in New York. Speaking of which:
  • Know your INDIVIDUAL records ecosystem. This means the laws, regulations, and guidelines that apply to your records in your particular jurisdiction. Does your state have a robust public records law? What is the statute of limitations for civil litigation where you live? Are you subject to Sarbanes-Oxley or other disclosure legislation? As you might have guessed, bringing your Legal folks on board from a risk management perspective is usually a good idea at this point.
  • Start thinking about value. You may have seen the four big record value categories (Administrative, Fiscal, Legal, and Historical) listed here or elsewhere, but what does they mean? Can something have, for example, Administrative AND Legal value? (SPOILER ALERT: Yes.) Think about how records are used in either their active or archival lives and what impact that has on how long you’re recommending they be kept. One way of figuring this out:
  • Talk to your creators. They will often have a good sense of how often they regularly refer to records they create (a rough proxy for administrative value) and the circumstances in which they might be required to refer back to those records later (rough proxies for fiscal and legal value, as well as historical if applicable). Of course, use your professional judgment–if you think records have historical value but your creators are unconvinced, that can be a sign of trouble down the road.
  • Get the word out! Yep, it’s the dreaded O-word (Outreach). You can’t even avoid it at a technical level such as scheduling creation. In the case of the poster to whom I initially responded, I suggested that he impress upon admin that “indiscriminately hoarding everything both slows the rate of information retrieval and exposes your institution to additional risk in cases of records discovery or breach of personally identifiable information (such as FERPA information).” To us, as records professionals, this may be obvious, but it’s not always so to records creators, especially those removed from compliance areas. Don’t forget the carrot as well as the stick, though: not only does scheduling reduce risk, it makes sure that the good stuff that DOES go to the archives is properly identified and flagged to go there, so the institution is able to show itself off at its next big anniversary.

Of course, this is all just one guy’s opinion on starting points for building retention schedules (and starting to build good records practice). The last bit of advice I gave on the listserv was to consult various lists (LART, RMRT, RECMGMT-L) for help and experience within various contexts. That works here, too! What are your tips for newbie records managers just beginning to put schedules together? (Or, if you are a newbie records manager, what do you want to know?)


One thought on “Getting Started on Records Scheduling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s