Records Management for Electronic Documents

By Gable, Julie | Records Management Quarterly, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Records Management for Electronic Documents


Gable, Julie, Records Management Quarterly


Sound records management calls for managing a record from its creation through its final disposition. Retention schedules, for example, commonly tell how long a record series is kept and where it is kept, correlating accessibility with the record's active and inactive periods. On a retention schedule, electronic records receive a retention period based on their classification, no different from their paper counterparts.

The challenge of electronic records, however, has several parts. Unless they are printed, electronic records remain intangible. They are physically stored on a personal computer hard drive or a shared network drive where they remain accessible. In information systems parlance, "inactive" electronic records are those that have not been opened or edited for a particular time period - typically six months. To make room on the network drive, the "inactive" electronic records are archived, which means that they are transferred to magnetic tape and stored off-line - perhaps in perpetuity. The problem is that the physical locations of electronic records are not managed by records managers but by information systems departments. So the first challenge of electronic records management lies not in applying a retention period, but in making it stick, i.e., assuring that an electronic record follows the same pre-determined path as its paper brethren and is ultimately destroyed or preserved as prescribed by the records program.

The second challenge is more complex: electronic records are not named in any consistent way and follow no consistent filing structure. Electronic records are created in decentralized environments, given names that appeal to their creators and are placed in electronic file folders or directories that have been set up according to their creators' sense of order. Until recently, names for electronic documents were limited to eight characters, a dot, and three characters, known as 8.3 file names. Depending on how clever the creators were about making directories and sub-directories for their work, the electronic documents could literally be anywhere.

In electronic environments, only a record's creator knows: (1) What the record's content is; (2) What the record is called, and (3) In which electronic directory it has been placed. Without consistent structure, classification or indexing, finding an electronic record takes on the feel of rummaging in an electronic basement. Bad as this situation is, it is expected to worsen. According to Dr. Keith T. Davidson, executive director of Xplor International, "By 2004, the pile of information on your desk will be 30% paper and 70% electronic, compared to 90% paper today."(1)

The inability to locate critical electronic documents represents huge problems for environments where teams of people work on a common project, e.g., law firms, research groups, construction projects, etc. In the late '80s middleware software products(2) emerged to deal with this problem. Products such as PC DOCs and Saros Mezzanine were originally designed to overcome the limits of 8.3 naming and provide a structure for filing the document as soon as it was saved. This was accomplished by providing an information capture screen and an underlying database in the middleware product. For example, after creating a document using Word for Windows, the author selects Save from the File menu. Instead of the regular Save window, PC DOCs opens a Profile window which permits the author to name the document fully, record key words associated with the document, enter a lengthy description of document content and place the new document into an electronic folder selected from a limited list of possible electronic folders. The document now has a name that makes sense, can only be in a limited number of folders (as opposed to anywhere) and can be found by conducting a search based on document description or key words.

With the ability to locate documents, middleware software products went on to include a field for document type, a rudimentary form of classification. …

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