The offices of most organizations share an overriding problem: not enough space. Not enough space for people. Not enough space for equipment. But especially, not enough space for the yards and yards of paper records.
File cabinets are stacked on top of file cabinets. Closets, basements, and attics are filled with file cabinets. Inside those file cabinets, the squeeze continues. Too many folders in the drawer, too many pieces of paper in the folders.
Finding particular reports or memos becomes more a job for Indiana Jones than for mere mortals. Not only is there too much paper, but it is usually organized haphazardly. Most filing systems suffer from one or more of the "danger signals" listed below. These problems are dangerous because they impede the accurate creation and retrieval of information, as well as make it difficult to ensure that historically important records are identified and preserved.
So, what to do? You are already overworked, and the thought of redesigning your filing system has - to say the least - limited appeal. But there are improvements that can be made with a very small expenditure of time, effort, and money.
For instance, certain classes of records can and should be destroyed routinely three to seven years after their creation. These include (but are not limited to) bank statements, canceled check, invoices, expense reports, time cards/sheets, meeting planning files, most audio and video tapes, receipts, duplicate copies of anything, and publications received from outside agencies and organizations. Such records have administrative value (that is, value to the daily operation of the organization) or legal value (that is, a legal requirement that they be retained) only for a limited time, and have little or no long-term historical value. We can call these records "short-term" because they need only be preserved for a relatively brief time. While these records must be retained for three to seven years, most of them cease being useful in the daily operation of the organization after one to two years. (When records are no longer regularly consulted by the organization they are said to be "inactive.")
It should be easy to destroy such records by following a simple record retention schedule except for the fact that most filing systems do not "break" files on a regular basis. "Breaking" a file means starting a new folder every year (or every five years) without fail. In this way, folders do not become overcrowded and it is extremely easy to purge records according to a schedule. Indeed, if files are broken by year, it is a simple matter to remove short-term records each year (or whenever they become inactive), box them, and store them elsewhere for the duration of their legal or administrative lives.
It is important to stress that storing inactive, short-term records in file cabinets is a waste of what is probably your organization's most scarce and expensive asset: storage space. Once they become inactive, short-term records can be boxed (make sure to label the boxes) and stored in less desirable and accessible locations: a basement (so long as the boxes are up off the floor), a garage (ditto), an attic (so long as there are no squirrels living up there). Basements, garages, and attics are not good places to store records you want to keep for a long time, but of course these are short-term records. Save your file cabinet space for active records.
Another crucial point is that computer records (either on floppy disks or on internal hard drives) are both similar to and different from paper records. For most non-profit organizations, computer records are just a different form of the same information found in paper records (a rough analogy would be between an LP and CD version of the same music). Computer records can still become inactive, and most of them (like most paper records) have only short-term value. However, computer records are much more fragile than paper records, and greater care must be taken to ensure that - for however long they may be needed -they can in fact be read. Two things threaten the "legibility" of computer records: obsolete software and deteriorated or obsolete hardware. In less than seven years (the useful life of many kinds of short-term records) software can change so much as to make a diskette useless. In as little as three or four years, the physical diskette itself may become too deteriorated for even compatible software to read (backup tapes should last longer, but no where near as long as paper records).
Records in computer form should only be stored in main office or living areas, never in basements, attics, or garages. Moreover, whenever you make significant software or hardware changes, you should be sure to copy into the new system or format all the computer records which still have a legal, fiscal, V administrative, or historical value, even if those records are inactive. Once computer records no longer have any of these values, erase them or throw the diskettes away.
Many other records (computer-based or paper) in an office-reports, correspondence, minutes, etc.-may have long-term value but cease to have administrative value after three to five years. Once these records (call them "historical") become inactive, they too can be moved out of filing cabinets and into boxes. Preferably, inactive historical records should be placed in boxes in the same order that they were maintained as active files. Number the boxes, and make lists of the folder titles in each box; doing that means you will quickly be able to find a particular folder or document again. Inactive records with historical value should not be stored in basements, garages, or attics unless there is no alternative. Better storage space for historical records would be in a closet, storeroom, or some other room that is heated in winter and cooled in summer.
These historical records form the "archives" of the organization. An organization's archives should preserve, in the smallest amount of records possible, documentation of its origins, purposes, major activities, significant accomplishments and most important interactions with clients and/or other agencies. The archives in an organization's memory, ensuring that as staff changes and the organization evolves, its history is accessible.
Ideally, an organization should preserve its own archives. However, sometime this is not possible. Historical repositories (like the State Historical Society of Iowa, special collections at colleges and universities throughout the state, and local historical societies) may be willing to preserve all or part ofan organization's archives.
There are three important things to know about the relationship between these repositories and an organization's archives. First, the organization must give up ownership of their records since most repositories will only accept an organization's records as donations. Second, a repository may not wish to preserve an organization's entire archives. Repositories preserve records to serve a broad research clientele; some records that may be important to an organization may not be important to a repository's researchers. Therefore, before agreeing to donate records to a repository, an organization should make sure it understands which records the repository wishes to preserve. Third, most repositories will agree to restrict researcher access to some or all of an organization's records for a specific period of time, but eventually records donated to a repository will be open for public research.
This pamphlet is based on a publication originally prepared by the Minnesota Historical Society. This adaptation was prepared with funds provided by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.