Theory and discussion of best practices abound in virtually any field or profession, whether it is social work, mortuary science, customer service, botany, or, yes, even records management.
Within the setting of an institution, agency, organization or corporation, it is the responsibility of the records manager(s) to ensure that the records of his/her respective organization can be retrieved for reference and use and, then, retained for an established duration of time, according to applicable laws and/or the retention schedule of the organization.
Typically, records (or documents) have what can be described as a life cycle: records are created, they are actively and heavily used or referenced; then there is a stage of inactivity where applicable records may need to be retained by law or for potential future use; then, after an established duration of time, records may be converted to another format, donated to an archival repository, or destroyed.
In a riveting white paper, prepared for the Association of Information and Image Management in 1997, William Saffady discuss the life cycle of records:
In corporations, government agencies, and other organizations, the life spans of documents are defined by record retention policies and procedures. Such policies and procedures are based on legal, fiscal, administrative, or other requirements. From creation or receipt through destruction or permanent preservation, documents are subject to changing requirements for timely retrieval, convenient distribution, and reliable, cost-effective storage.
While the life cycle and disposition of records is a familiar concept to a records manager, it is fascinating to see the realization of an organization’s records retention schedule from active use and retrieval to the retention of inactive records and storage to, when applicable, the disposition of organizational records to an archival repository.
The link between records management and archival science is most evident in instances where inactive records are donated (or sold) to an archival repository for future preservation and access to researchers. It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to suggest that an organization’s retention schedule of today can lead to the archival collection of tomorrow. An illustration of the connection between an organization’s retention schedule and an archival repository, specifically the American Jewish Historical Society, can be cited with the September 22, 1970 memorandum from Samuel Rosenthal to Federation Directors, Assistant Directors, and Department Heads.
Rosenthal explains that “[in] order to insure a more effective and efficient control of our records in our Archives (located on the second floor) the attached procedure are to be adhered to immediately.” Rosenthal describes the process of transferring records to the archives, temporarily removing records from their archives, returning records to their archives, and the destruction of records according to the Federation’s retention schedule.
From a memorandum from Samuel Rosenthal to Directors, Assistant Directors, and Department Heads of the Federation, September 22, 1970
Notice the type of material marked “permanent.” Many of the records marked with that designation (e.g. Board of Trustees and Committee Minutes, Budget Material) have been transferred to the custody of the American Jewish Historical Society. These records have been or soon will be processed, arranged, described, and made available to researchers.
Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York Retention Schedule, September 22, 1970
Now, to be clear, the second floor archives mentioned in Rosenthal’s memorandum was probably not a climate and humidity controlled archival repository filled with acid-free folders. However, without the foresight of the Federation’s retention schedule and their diligence in adhering to that schedule, these important and historically noteworthy records might not be here today in an archival repository.