Electronic Records Retention: Fourteen Basic Principles

Article excerpt



* how electronic records have transformed the nature of information management

* the translation of traditional records retention principles for visible media to electronic recordkeeping environments

* a practical methodology for developing electronic records retention schedules

Computers, and the information technology revolution they have spawned, are literally transforming the nature of the economy, in this country and throughout the world (Mandal 1994). The computer industry is not quite the world's largest industry (the petroleum and automotive industries are somewhat larger), but according to many observers, it is the world's most important industry "because of its power to transform the way people work" (Sherman 1993). Moreover, the overriding importance of the computer industry and its transforming impact on the economy can be seen in the following statistic: In 1991, for the first time in history, U.S. businesses spent more money on computers and communications equipment than on all other capital equipment combined (Mandal 1994).

If business computing has transformed the nature of the economy and of work itself, it has certainly transformed the nature of business recordkeeping. This transformation is fundamental to the very nature of information and its use in the conduct of business. We are witnessing epochal changes in records media as well as in the quantity and value of business records. Each of these changes is having a profound effect on both the theory and practice of the discipline of records management, including records retention.

Electronic recordkeeping systems require functionality for the automatic migration of documents and data from costly online media to secondary, less expensive media, based on declining usage as they make their life cycle transition toward inactive status. Moreover, these systems require functionality for the automatic deletion of expired electronic records at the conclusion of their life cycle. Finally, these systems require functionality for the permanent retention of electronic records possessing archival value. These functional requirements constitute the essence of electronic records retention, and records managers who can develop this functionality in the electronic recordkeeping systems of the future should themselves enjoy a good future.

A successful future for records management also requires a much closer relationship between records managers and computer systems specialists in information systems (IS) departments than has hitherto occurred. One of the best ways of accomplishing a closer relationship is for records managers to work with IS personnel to develop and implement strategies for purging useless electronic documents and data from computer systems, or for assuring their long-term preservation if required.

The following 14 basic principles for scheduling electronic records for retention and disposition provide a translation of the traditional principles associated with records retention from visible media to electronic recordkeeping environments. These basic principles are designed to provide records managers with a foundation of knowledge and a practical methodology for developing electronic records retention schedules.

Principle No. 1: Understand the Essence of Electronic Records Retention

Electronic records retention is the act of retaining computer-based records in digital storage media for specified, predetermined periods of time commensurate with their value, with subsequent disposal or permanent preservation as a matter of official organizational policy. To expand on this definition, an electronic records retention program is that component of an organization's larger records management program that provides policies and procedures specifying the length of time that computer-based records must be maintained. An organization's official policy for electronic records retention is normally expressed in the form of an electronic records retention schedule, with supporting procedures to facilitate its implementation. …


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