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!

Holly

Continue reading “A Records Center is not an Archives: Transfer Forms!”

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Next RMS hangout: Records Managers Outside of Archives speak up!

After a few months’ hiatus, the Records Management Section Hangout Series is back!

On Thursday, March 29 at 12:00 CDT, join members of the RMS steering committee in a discussion on ““What RMs Want: Records Managers On What They Wish Archivists Knew About Them (And Vice-Versa)”. Experienced records managers Dennis Larsen (retired, formerly Records Manager for the University of Wisconsin-Colleges and Extension) and Connie Schumacher (Content and Records Manager, Argonne National Laboratories)  will answer questions about their experiences in records management environments in which archivists are removed from the immediate administrative hierarchy, but still interact with the records management staff to fulfill organizational and research mandates. Records Managers in such environments often have very different concerns and priorities than records managers also working as or under an archivist. During the hangout, we will examine those priorities and determine how archivists can work to help meet them, as well as how these different perspectives can benefit an organization’s archival program. (As a municipal records manager under the Milwaukee City Clerk but with working relationships with at least two different City archival or quasi-archival repositories, I will weigh in on this as well!)

To tune in live to the hangout, please visit the YouTube watch page; following the discussion, the recording will be available at that same URL. RMS staff will be monitoring the page feed and social media for questions for our speakers; please use the #saarms hashtag on Twitter to ensure maximum visibility for your question, or leave it as a comment ahead of time at the RMS Blog. Look forward to seeing you there!

HQ2 and the Right-to-Know

Regardless of what camp you find yourself in on the topic of Amazon’s HQ2 courtship with North American cities, the process has triggered open record requests and questions about the degree to which cities are required to disclose the documentation of their overtures to the corporate giant.

This is especially true in Pittsburgh, where inclusion of the region’s bid, titled PGHQ2, as one of 20 finalist cities led to renewed demand for the full proposal to be released via the state’s open records law. Why is this important? Many cities have offered significant tax and civic incentives to sway Amazon’s interest. With promised results of $5 billion in economic investment and the creation of 50,000 jobs, an argument can be made that it is in the public interest to know how elected officials believe HQ2 will influence the social, political, and economic fiber of their region.

These desire for details have manifested themselves in open records requests throughout many candidate cities, to varying degrees of success. Pennsylvania’s mechanism for open records requests, the Right-to-Know Law, was signed into law in 2008 and is facilitated by the state’s Office of Open Records. Like many open records laws, all records are presumed to be public and are deemed “open” unless one of several exceptions bars their disclosure. Thus, the burden is on the government agency to argue why certain records, for instance a proposal with wide-ranging public impact, should not be made publicly available.

AmazonHQ2Finalists_AmazonDotCom
https://www.amazon.com/b?node=17044620011

So what’s happening in the Steel City? Like hundreds of other cities across North America Pittsburgh submitted its bid in October 2017, the details of which were not publicly disclosed. PGHQ2, led by elected city and county officials, first cited a confidentially agreement with Amazon. The reasoning for secrecy soon shifted to “protecting a competitive advantage.” Right-to-Know requests for the proposal were refused. Requests for secondary records (letters, emails, notes) pertaining to the process, not the proposal itself, were met with half hearted gestures. The City initially stated those weren’t public either; the county responded that “the records do not exist.” Eventually these secondary requests were fulfilled through state intervention (Harrisburg itself is a big proponent of Pittsburgh’s bid).

But what of the PGHQ2 proposal? As is often the case with open records requests, persistence pays off. Fast forward two months to January 24, when news broke that Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records issued a ruling on a Right-to-Know request filed by local WTAE reporters ordering Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh to make the full PGHQ2 proposal and corresponding documentation public within 30 days. In a coincidental twist, both entities have 30 days to appeal, the same period one has to return unopened items to Amazon. If delivered, there’s no doubt Pittsburghers will open this proposal package.

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto holding the PGHQ2 proposal. Image Credit WTAE Pittsburgh.

The jury is still out on whether or not it’s truly in the region’s best interest that the PGHQ2 push is successful. With revived economic sectors, oft-touted cultural amenities, regional charm, and room to grow, Pittsburgh’s case is compelling. But the records and documents supporting that case shouldn’t be kept from the very citizens that make Pittsburgh so alluring. Open records laws, like Pennsylvania’s, are meant to serve the public good and promote transparent and accountable government. If Pittsburgh officials baited the PGHQ2 hook with tax incentives, public domain authority, or questionable civic inducements, the citizens of Southwest Pennsylvania certainly have a Right-to-Know.

Developing a Records Management Program: The People Part

Hello Readers:

My name is Elizabeth and I’m the Archivist for Records Management at the Bentley Historical Library for the University of Michigan. In my role, I am responsible for the development of a records management program that will fit – and ultimately benefit – the University. While the program builds upon the work of past Bentley archivists responsible for the development of university collections, what we really seek to bring is a collaborative approach to University-wide recordkeeping and to align that approach with the University’s overall information governance strategy. At the time of this post, the program is just over a year old.

My work is most closely affiliated with that of the field archivists. The five of us constitute the Collections Development Unit. Together, we manage donor relationships and collecting priorities. Managing donor relationships is a substantial conversation on its own and it is one I will be musing upon from time to time. To be frank, I’ve been a bit dissatisfied with the literature I’ve read on the subject of building a records management program. In particular, the bulleted lines of advice such as “get buy-in”, “find stakeholders”, and “develop a liaisons network”. Easy-peasy!

Hold up.

Of course it is not that simple.

When talking about donor relationships, many archivists envision individuals and families in keeping with the manuscript tradition. Institutional archivists and records managers don’t do that per se. Our donors are departments and units and business functionaries. We also have individual contacts within those bodies. So, in addition to managing relationships with our donors over a long period of time, we also must manage the contacts we make. Whether those contacts are the agents of transfer, records liaisons, sources of institutional knowledge or potential allies, the cultivation and stewardship of those contacts ranks among the most important functions of any institutional archives and records management program.

Gosh, if managing relationships isn’t a skill on its own. There are plenty of articles on emotional intelligence and soft skills. Career guidance for records managers usually include a call for ‘good communication skills’. Just this past summer I attended a lovely session titled Soft Skills for Hard Tech at SAA. There are articles and one-pagers dedicated towards crossing that IT/Archives/RM/IG barrier. However, the challenge I face while building the program is not just a matter of parlance. It’s a matter of experience, strategy, relationship-building and negotiating bureaucratic politics.

Thinking back to collections development, let’s take a moment to consider what “development” entails. In the nonprofit world, a part of development is the creation, nurturing, and maintaining of relationships that hopefully will lead to charitable contributions. And this is how I came to be sitting in the office of Ceci Riecker, the Bentley’s Director of Development.

Ceci’s origin story is that of an English major. Like some English majors (*ahem*), she didn’t have focused career advisement and she didn’t mean to set out into the world as the next Rory Gilmore. Ceci worked for some time as an administrative assistant in a local bank before moving on to work for the well-known Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair. She found a position at the Museum of Natural History in development and gradually worked her way up into leadership positions at St. Joseph’s and EMU. During this time, she explored the world of nonprofits and cultural heritage on her own, finishing work in Historic Preservation at EMU. When she heard that the Bentley was seeking applicants for a Director of Development, she resolved to apply with a simple message: “You need me.”

Ceci’s appreciation for our mission, combined with the skills and network of contacts she has cultivated in the course of her work, really spoke to me. Chatting with her has only strengthened my suspicion that those of us intent upon building a records management program can stand to take a few cues from our partners in the nonprofit development sector.

“Think of development as education. What did Terry* say the other day, educate up, mentor down?” I smiled at this, and agreed. Yes, every meeting I have, whether I’ve partnered with my field colleagues or not, usually includes a solid 15-minute pitch crafted through research (donor files, a gap analysis of the finding aid, and a good ol’ fashion newspaper) and the feel of the conversation. Maybe they’ll contact me for a records schedule, maybe not, but the seeds have been planted.

“It’s about trust and a relationship. Manage the ask.” In other words, going in with a list of demands may be heavy-handed at best, off-putting and tactless at worst. Managing your asks and those touches (“Hey, I thought of you when this came through our door…”,) may take time but the relationship you cultivate will last. If something comes up, that relationship you’ve taken the time to forge means you’ll have an ally in the office more willing than not to assist you.

On the matter of research, she summed it up succinctly. “Knowledge. Interest. Respect.” Doing the research beforehand goes to show that you are interested and knowledgeable without you having to say you are interested and knowledgeable. Putting that effort in demonstrates respect for their time and their conversation.

What about building a network? “It’s about identifying the points of connection.” This, too, makes sense. Some months ago we began to receive packages in the mail from one of the units on campus. After several of these unsolicited offers of “old yearbooks”, I reached out via telephone to personally thank my contact for the time she had taken to send us the materials and to also fish for a little information. Was she cleaning out a closet? Was she aware of the records scheduling and transfer services we offer to units? The answer was yes and no – in fact, it was several forgotten closets being unearthed by architects during a swing space evaluation. This particular building is being renovated and all the administrative units and student organizations housed there are being headquartered elsewhere for the next year. This move is a major trigger event, and we’ve been able to partner with dozens of new allies.

(n.b. Nonprofit development staff also have moved beyond Excel spreadsheets and have invested in tools and products which help them to identify and manage those points of connection, such as Raiser’s Edge and Salesforce. I personally think it interesting to think about possible applications of these tools when considering traditional archival donor management techniques.)

Like many, I dislike receiving criticism. The reality is that we need that criticism to know ourselves. We are asking that others share with us an intimate knowledge of their office dynamics and information. We are asking that they trust us with our professed expertise. Thus, I am not embarrassed to write that I asked Ceci point blank what she found to be her greatest weakness. “Long-term planning is a tough one. Things pop up and I could just do it myself, but it won’t be half as good as if I did it with the way it’s supposed to be done…with my team!” Her honesty on this was – is – reassuring for me to hear. As a relatively early careerist in higher education, I often find that pace is challenging. How long should it take to build a program? How do I best manage my expectations for its development? Why don’t people email me with questions?! We have a website!

There is no real conclusion to this post other than for me to say that I’m happy to have explored another perspective. Archivists and records managers extol the virtues of being interdisciplinary. When it comes to managing and improving our own business processes, what harm is there in looking outside the profession for a little inspiration?

For those of you interested in building a network of records liaisons and contacts more strategically, Ceci has recommended the Council for Advancement and Support of Education as a good starting place to learn more about development tools and techniques.

*Terry McDonald, Director of the Bentley Historical Library

New Functional Schedule for North Carolina State Agencies

A years-long project at the State Archives of North Carolina has culminated with the publication of the first Functional Schedule for North Carolina State Agencies.  Where state agencies have previously relied in a General Schedule for State Agency Records and hundreds of program-specific schedules, now all state agency officials have one 16-part retention and disposition schedule to guide them in the management of their public records.

In 2015, the Records Analysis Unit of the Government Records Section at the State Archives of North Carolina (SANC) began a project to revamp the retention and disposition schedules for state agencies in North Carolina.  Our overarching goals of the project were to simplify records retention, make the assignment of records dispositions more transparent, and ensure the retention of records with permanent value, either within the creating agency or at the State Archives.  We embraced the technique of functional analysis, whereby the functions of an institution are defined and the records that document these functions are linked.  Sixteen functions of North Carolina state government were identified, their record types listed, and disposition instructions provided.

Over 200 stakeholders from across North Carolina state government participated in meetings to review draft schedules for each of the 16 functions, and many staff at SANC in addition to the Records Analysis Unit also provided constructive feedback.  After these schedules reached their final draft stage, records analysts worked in concert with state agencies to crosswalk their records inventories to the new functional schedule.

These functional schedules standardize disposition instructions across State government and focus on the function of government that necessitates the creation of a record rather than on the particular agency that creates or maintains the record.  Therefore, users will not need to find relevant record types based on agency hierarchy but instead can identify record types relevant to the particular function of government they perform.  In addition, if the responsibilities of an agency change over time, the appropriate retention and disposition instructions for the records generated by this new function are already identified among the 16 functions identified above.  Realizing that an increasing share of state agency records are being created and maintained electronically, we attempted to group records with similar functions in “big buckets” in order to facilitate the appropriate disposition of these records that are housed in document management systems.

These new schedules can be viewed at https://archives.ncdcr.gov/documents/functional-schedule-state-agencies.  For a more in-depth look at the process behind this project, check out the case study published by SAA’s Government Records Section.

Upcoming Hangout: Institutional Placement Survey — Records Management and Archival Services

Mark your calendars for the next Records Management Section Google Hangout!

On Monday, December 4 at noon Eastern, the Records Management Section will be hosting a hangout with Jackie Esposito from Penn State University. She will be talking about the report on her Institutional Placement Survey — Records Management and Archival Services.

Institutional archives and records management programs provide such a wide variety of services that institutions often “struggle to fit” them within administrative offices.

From July to December 2016, Jackie conducted a study on where records management and archival services are located within universities. She developed an online survey and visited all fifteen Big Ten Academic Alliance universities for on-site interviews with a variety of stakeholders. They discussed the needs, issues, successes, and failures for different models of placement.

Review the report and be sure to tune in live to ask questions or watch later at your convenience. You can view the Hangout here.

We will be accepting questions for our speaker from you. If you have a question or topic for discussion please leave it as a comment here or use the #saarms hashtag on Twitter.  We will also monitor the comments on the YouTube live streaming page.

 

Dispostion and its Discontents

As many records managers note, recordkeeping decisions are in the news on a daily basis (with today’s accelerated news cycle, it often feels like an hourly basis!). Our last Resourceful Records Manager interview astutely noted, “As I first assumed RM responsibilities, I sat in on a conference talk by a leader in the field, who cited a news headline on records mismanagement and dissected it with great enthusiasm. As I realized that records implications are everywhere, the massiveness (and potential massiveness) of the profession made an impression on me.”

It’s increasingly clear that one of the major areas of public discontent is around disposition. Disposition is the decision that guides what should happen to records once they have reached the end of their useful value from the records creator’s point of view. Disposition can either take the form of destruction, or transfer to archives. I am enormously sympathetic to concern over this topic – there are very real worries that public records and data will disappear because it does happen – sometimes for normal reasons, sometimes for scary Orwellian reasons. However, not all disposition is created the same, and one of the most valuable things that records managers can communicate to the public is explaining the difference between what’s normal and what’s not normal when it comes to what should be destroyed and what should be saved.

This isn’t something that only records managers and archivists struggle with – our library colleagues navigating the rocky paths of weeding old books and media have their own public relations horror stories. Librarians and archivists know that a collection development policy is there not only to guide collecting decisions, but to protect librarians and archivists from future headaches (in this case, getting saddled with tons of out of scope collections or donations). A collection development policy is also in the public interest – a library or an archive so bogged down by a backlog of unprocessed and out of scope donations doesn’t serve the general public well at all.

I think of records retention schedules – in many institutional archives, the de facto collection development policy – performing a very similar role. You can’t keep everything due to resource constraints, and even if time and money were no object, you still shouldn’t keep everything from a liability perspective. On a hypothetical basis, the general public understands that all records can’t, and shouldn’t be, kept forever in an institutional setting. Where things break down with public understanding are questions of how long to keep those records, and what should happen to them after they are no longer actively needed.

This was vividly illustrated during some recent research I’ve undertaken on regulatory failures concerning hydraulic fracturing. The short version is that fracking technology and proliferation is far ahead of existing oil and gas regulations. The current regulatory environment cannot keep up with fracking’s environmental impacts, and failures of recordkeeping are a prominent part of larger regulatory failures. Many groups have been filing open records requests to try to understand the impacts of fracking on rural land and water. The Pittsburgh-based investigative reporters of Public Herald has done enormous work in this area, scanning citizen complaint records from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, and making them available through a public files website, and mapping the complaints. Many of these complaints trigger subsequent investigations into whether fracking has resulted in an impact on local water supplies. In other words, a “positive determination of impact” would mean that the Department of Environmental Protection found that fracking affected water supplies.

As much as I admire the work of the Public Herald, I strongly object to one of their assertions about a very normal recordkeeping issue. In their article claiming that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection systematically cooks the books, they laid out nine different methods to substantiate their argument. Some of the recordkeeping practices are indeed serious cause for alarm, but the final one (“DEP Retention Policy for complaint records says complaints are to be kept on file for five years, “then shred.””) struck me as a complete misunderstanding of retention scheduling. Scheduling records for destruction is not a method for manipulating records, and it’s disingenuous to claim otherwise.

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Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Oil and Gas retention policy, as presented by Public Herald

The Public Herald wrote the following:

Around month twenty-eight of this investigation, sitting down to scan the last remaining complaint files, a paper with everything blacked out except one paragraph was left on Public Herald’s file review desk by a veteran PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) employee. It read “DEP retention policy.” In a paragraph about “Complaints,” the document revealed that the Department should only hold complaint records for five years after resolution – “then shred.”
Initially, Public Herald figured these records would be kept on microfiche or a digital PDF and that shredding them would only ensure space within the records office. But, after careful questioning with an employee who’s been with the agency for decades, the staff person revealed that only those records which could be considered “useful” would be kept on record at all, turned into microfilm, and “useful” meant only those listed in DEP’s 260 positive determinations. What shocked us even more is that, according to this whistleblower, there is no review committee in place to sift through the “non-impact” complaint records before they are shredded.

The Public Herald rightfully raises important and compelling questions about how DEP assesses the question of fracking’s impact. But only part of the retention schedule is posted – the remainder is redacted. Without having the full context of the retention schedule, we do not know what other information is kept for say, 100 years (as one of the redacted record groups appears to be), and it very well may be that information otherwise in the public interest is kept for much longer. I tried to do a quick search for the full schedule online – although I could not easily find it (one of my biggest pet peeves common to state agencies – for some reason, I find it easier to obtain municipal and federal agency records schedules), one could almost certainly obtain an unredacted version of it by filing a Pennsylvania Right to Know request.

Perhaps this is the first time Public Herald has encountered a retention schedule, but the presentation of this as a shady and strange document is truly unfortunate. Furthermore, the write-up demonstrates how little the public understands about why records are scheduled the way they are – which is that the vast majority of retention decisions begin, and often end with, “How long must we keep these records to fulfill legal obligations?” Simply put, what is to be gained by maintaining complaint records for more than 5 years, given that most local, state, and federal agencies can barely keep up with managing records as they are currently scheduled? Proposals to retain records even longer would have to make a very compelling reason for why.

Many of the applicable statutes of limitations associated with potential liability brought by complaints would fall within 5 years, so a 5 year retention period for both impact and non-impact determination records doesn’t seem abnormal. Furthermore, the suggestion that a review committee should determine the final disposition of individual records is a recipe for disaster. Public comment absolutely can and should inform the broad formulation of retention scheduling decisions – for example, if members of the public could make a compelling argument for retaining the complaint records more than 5 years, that is something that should be seriously considered and perhaps incorporated into retention policies. But a committee to review the final disposition outcome for individual complaint case files is not realistic, and would almost certainly result in far more political bias. Who would be on the review committee? How would they document their decisions? How fast would they be expected to work? Witness how slow and controversial federal records declassification is if you want a glimpse of what individual-record-determination-decision-by-committee would almost certainly look like in practice.

Bottom line: as many archivists have pointed out, there is almost nothing that is neutral about the world of records and archives. Many records retention scheduling decisions are areas that significantly misunderstood by the general public. It would behoove more records managers to talk openly and transparently about why and how we schedule records the way we do. Others may disagree with our decisions, but at least the process will be clearer to those encountering records retention schedules for the first time.

Update: At their request, this post has been updated to more accurately identify the Public Herald as investigative reporters.