Records Management

What is a record?

What is a record? A perenial question asked by records professionals as well as their clients. Back in the paper age records managers kept a tight grip on the definition of a record. In order not to accumulate too much information in what would normally be an expensive file store, they’d restrict it to any documents – in any format, sent or received – that recorded a transaction or decision taken in the course of official business.

It could be defined as any document you could use in a court of law to provide evidence that a certain action or policy was undertaken.

Today that definition has changed little, but the environment wherein such transactions and decisions take place has changed considerably. Courts, too, have been quick to adapt, expanding the document types they’re willing to accept as evidence.

Emails, chats, presentation slides, images, code, datalogs, every keystroke or mouse-click – whether deleted and emptied from the ‘recycle bin/trash’ can now be used to provide evidence either for or against an organisation or individual.

Fifteen years ago there was little more than the paper document, specifically typed or handwritten for the prupose, to prove an action one way or another. It took some effort to produce such material, so the volume of information was relatively small.

Today, however, that volume increases exponentially each year as people find ever cleverer ways to speed up their information output. The introduction of photocopiers and fax machines were the first to expand the needs of the records store, with large policy or contract documents hopping from one organisation to the next and requiring storage accordingly.

But it was the advent of computers on desktops that has really seen the expansion in information, and with it, the expansion of the definition of a record. What would have normally been conducted over the phone or at lunch is often now done, or at least confirmed, by email, vCalendar, or instant message. All of which, reader, can prove that X had lunch with Y, Ms B wrote rude things about Mrs X, or the Finance Director transferred how much from this account to that.

Courts have regularly asked for ‘all documents relating to such and such’ and sent computer forensic experts into organisations to ‘undelete’ documents from hard drives. The Information Tribunal in the UK recently held that deleted documents could reasonably be searched in answering any FOI request. All the documents were admissable, not just the ones marked ‘Record’.

So what is a record today? In addition to any paper documents you may still have, just about anything that arrives on your organisation’s hard drives. The trick is to use the tried techniques of records management to get a handle on the potential clutter that can amass, and this author will attempt to provide you with some simple steps to achieving that.

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