A Records Center is not an Archives: Transfer Forms!

[Note: This was a forum post to the Records Management Section list on SAA’s site that got a little out of hand. Rather than clog everyone’s mailbox, I decided to post it here. The fact that I can add Futurama GIFs to posts here, and not on SAA Connect, had absolutely nothing to do with this decision (he said, unconvincingly.)

For your reference, the original question:]

I’m interested in ANY AND ALL advice you’ll give me on forms and procedure for transferring records to a Record Center.

Our Records Center is revising the information that we ask for from our departments when they transfer records to us for storage, scanning, and/or destruction. I’m interested in seeing your version of a Records Center transfer form.

Do you ask for information at the box level, file level, or both? Do you require a full inventory of each box transferred? Why or why not?

With complex records policies, I’m concerned about overwhelming our customers with another complex form. What methods have you used to educate your users on how to transfer records to your facility? 

Thanks for your help!


Hi Holly,

This is a great question (and my answer is sort of tangentially related to Eira’s weekly discussion question)! I am attaching the Milwaukee City Records Center’s transfer form to this email. When I started here almost a year ago, coming from a records management job in an archival context at UWM, I *hated* this form.

Actually, Futurama, this is a records center because it contains records that are still semi-active. But good effort!

Hated hated hated. “Where’s the room for folder level info?” I said. “Why should the creator have to fill out their own schedule number? Why are we having them give us a box number if we’re just going to give it another one?” Over the past year I have learned to… well, hate it less, let’s be real. Too many of them still come in handwritten, and I don’t like that we engrave the location of the records in stone on the form (what happens if/when we move them?). But, it occurred to me, I was thinking about this as an archivist, and not as a records manager.

Where’s the room for folder-level info?” To be sure, we do get some boxes with folder level info, which are typically shoehorned into this form. The box number and date range is usually on one line, and the folder names are in “record title and range”. Sometimes the departments include a folder inventory on a separate sheet. But the thing is… you only really need that info for boxes with irregular folder titles. For boxes with, for example, property recordings, they are typically arranged in some systematic way– by street address, say– and so long as that system is evident, you can get away with putting file ranges in. If someone is asking for a property listing for 123 Any Street, you know from your box-level inventory that Any street is in the box with “Street Names A-F”. (Theoretically.)

Of course, if you are in a situation where time is a factor, and you must know where every record in every box is (e.g. you’re barcoding all of them), then yes, you want a folder inventory even if the files are organized well. Similarly, if you get a disorganized box and it’s in a series that is requested frequently, that’s an opportunity to call the person listed at the top of the form and say “hey, you need to give me a little more than this if you want to see your records in a timely manner”. Unless a record series is explicitly archival, the only information you NEED from creators is the information that will help those creators find their semi-active records again.

“Why should the creator have to fill out their own schedule number?” Typically, I am a proponent of the “make the creator do as little as possible” school of records thought. In this particular case, I have come around to making them fill this out, because the effect of not having a records schedule in a records center is much more pronounced than not having one in an archives. Without a schedule number, you have no way of quickly identifying what a particular box or group of boxes contained– and more to the point, you have no way of determining when records are ready to be destroyed (Records Managers: We Were Deaccessioning Before Leonard Rapport said it was Cool).

I don’t care HOW many lasergun battles you have to get to, fill out the transfer form properly. It’s just common courtesy.

The City of Milwaukee records center is running at about 84% vault capacity, which is close enough to the ceiling that we really do have to keep careful track of when records are ready to be destroyed, and get ‘er done when that date comes along, lest we find ourselves having to turn away records, or worse, outsource… So, I see this bit of it as asking for a bare minimum of responsibility from transferring departments.

By having a valid schedule number, it shows that the department records person is at least vaguely aware of the administrative/legal/fiscal value of the records they’re sending, and has taken the care to codify it per Wisconsin records law. Sometimes, if it’s something that we know is scheduled, we’ll fill it in ourselves, but I have already turned away records that have been brought down here with no schedule attached to them. I have turned away records with EXPIRED schedules attached to them. I will do it again. (Always with an offer to help the department get up to date with their retention, of course. :))

“Why are we having them give us a local box number if we’re going to replace it?” So this is where the difference between an archives and a records center is really stark from my POV, and also where I kind of still disagree with our practices… but because it’s going to cause more grumbling from my staff to change it than it annoys me to leave it alone, I’m keeping the status quo (for now). Basically, rather than organizing boxes of records by accession, collection, etc., we do so BY BOX.

Central Filing
Pictured: City of Milwaukee Records Center. OK, not really. But can we get some of those sweet pneumatic tubes?

We have each box assigned its own 6 digit number, and to the extent that we need to look for something in a box, we either bring up all the boxes in that series or all the boxes by department.

Because, ultimately, the tidy(ish) finding aids are more for external users than for internal staff, we can get away with essentially keeping all of our boxes in one big collection with filters (when we start our more public-facing service this is going to change). There are two reasons for this: 1) ultimately at this level the records series, rather than the collection, is the key unit of organization; and 2) This system is our inventory management as well as our access management, and so we need to have everything in there in one table to get good stats on our holdings.

BUT WAIT! Why, then, do we have them put in box numbers to begin with? Well, it’s kind of an artifact of our paper processes, but in general the 6-digit number is not useful to records creators, because we assign them after the boxes have been transferred. They don’t need a unique ID for their boxes; they just need a reference point in case they need a file from a particular box. Great. So we actually do record their numbering system on the box record as a “legacy number”, so if they say “give me this folder from Box 23”, we can search for box 23 in that series and pick it out.

BUT WAIT, PART 2! What if there are multiple box 23s? In that case, we ask them what date the boxes were sent down, then cross reference with the date the boxes were entered into our system.

My evil plan to bring order to the chaos that is our “accessioning” process is proceeding! Muahahaha!

So, without knowing the internal box number, the user can tell us “Box 23, sent September 12, 2017” and we can tell what transfer it was a part of. Sort of… like… an accession number??? (Now you see why I included the “for now” in the first paragraph of this section.

As far as education goes… Well, that’s an ongoing process. We have an instruction sheet on our intranet that says how to fill out a transfer form, but frankly I am not sure how many people read it (or, indeed, know that it exists). So this is the nice thing about records coordinators, in theory– I can make sure THEY know the proper way to fill out a form and transfer records, and then they can pass that information on to other people in their department. In practice, of course, I’m finding that a lot of the time records come down directly, bypassing the coordinator, and that is usually where the proper completion of these forms fails. I take it as a teachable moment to fix bad habits– put more than one file in a box, or put more than one year in a box, or don’t fill boxes with series with multiple retention schedules. (All things I have had to tell people, sadly enough). I think ultimately, you’re going to teach people to do this the same way you do any records management education– training workshops, webcasts, handouts, in-office instruction, or whatever it is that works for you. (One thing that we in particular need to do is completely revamp our website, which is an enormous mess.)

Anyway, that was a lot longer than I intended it to be– hope it was helpful! (As a murderer of several archives best practices sacred cows, I look forward to your angry comments down below.)



4 thoughts on “A Records Center is not an Archives: Transfer Forms!

  1. pak152

    got out of hand? i saw 3 postings the original, one reply and your posting. as for clogging people’s inboxes considering the low level of discussion on the SAA RM list clogging is not a problem. would have been better to post to the list and allow the discussion proceed forward rather than hijacking it for a blog posting

    1. Brad H.

      I appreciate this perspective, Peter. Mine differs– I feel like people have enough junk in their inboxes on a daily basis that they don’t need to see me blathering on for 2000 words. If people want to click through and read this, great! If not, less great, but they’ve seen 3 lines instead of 300. I just don’t feel like an email list is an appropriate form of communication for long- or medium-form writing like this. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

  2. What a great blog post! I love the multi-dimensional content which combines several recent threads on the SAA RMS Listserv (archivist-RM transitions, both ways; educating colleagues; and, of course, records center operations).Plus GIFS! I’m bookmarking this one because I’m often on the lookout for good, relatable explanations of RM and archives work in real life context, As a blogger, I can see why you responded to Holly this way, via link, as, you thought posting this content on the Listserv as a wall of text message would tip the ongoing conversation into out of hand-land. And I say that as someone who sometimes blathers on in my own wall of text List messages at the SAA RMS Listserv on super arcane Fedland stuff when I don’t have an existing blog post (my own, someone else’s) to which I can link. Thanks for this, Brad!


  3. Dropping a note to give a big thanks again for this post. I’m referring to it again, 5 months later, as we’re continuing to revise our Records Center procedures.

    There’s been a lot of fear in our department in the past on “turning away” records for storage, even because of valid reasons like expired retention. Because of this we’re facing a Records Center that’s at 87% capacity. It’s good to see that other organizations have to set clear boundaries with their customers and reject records when they’re outside of policy. I’m a bit wary of becoming the new management “bad guy” since many of our customers were accustomed to sending anything and everything they wanted for storage. It’s great to hear that the changes we’re making are common in the industry.

    (The Futurama gifs are still funny, too.)

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