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Chapter 6:

Reformatting Records

Reformatting from paper to another medium is often viewed as the cure to records storage woes. However, while records conversions can make a significant improvement in efficiently managing information, they should be carefully considered and planned in careful detail. Reformatting is not always the best solution to a record keeping problem, and it definitely is not the least expensive solution. Before implementing a reformatting plan, explore alternatives, such as applying retention schedule requirements regularly, using a commercial or non-commercial facility for storage, and purging files.

Rule of thumb: Low use, inactive paper records with retention periods of less than 20 years generally should be kept in their original form and stored in the most secure, lowest-cost space available.

When To Reformat or Convert

The most important thing to remember about reformatting is that records should not be converted or reformatted solely for space-saving purposes. An analysis of the records - their use, their retention periods, and their inherent long-term value - should be completed before any final decision is made. Consider the following when evaluating the necessity and practicality of reformatting:

It is also necessary to do a detailed cost analysis prior to making any decision to reformat, as the long-term economic benefits should be greater than short-term expenses. The allure of the technology is not a sufficient reason to reformat records but the progress and rate of technological developments, with continued reductions in cost, are promising and reason for delay.

There are two major methods used for imaging records - microfilming and optical scanning. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on their application and the anticipated use of the reproduced documents.

Paper to Film

Source document microfilm is a method of converting paper to film. It is a fairly low-cost storage and retrieval alternative for any size operation. It generally costs from three to five cents per image for normal commercial type filming. It is one of the most widely used means of reproducing records. Conversion costs are fairly easily controlled, and the output has been a reliable reformatting norm for decades.

Microfilm has standard formats. The retrieval equipment is fairly inexpensive. One can assume that once information is recorded on microfilm, it will be permanently available at a reasonable cost. Multiple copies of the film can also be made for wider distribution and access to the information.

Microfilm is the only "eye-readable" format that reduces space requirements. No matter what the evolution of records keeping equipment in the future, microfilm can always be available to be read, since all that is required to access the information on a roll of film is a light source and a magnifying glass.

Optical Disk

Optical imaging converts information stored on a computer, film, or paper to a digitized image that is then stored on a compact disk (CD). Optical imaging is often the choice of those with a need to drastically reduce space, or to have multiple users accessing the same information at the same time.

Optical imaging is expensive, however, it is not eye-readable, and the CD medium (disk) has only a ten year shelf life. Care must be taken by the end-user to make sure that the computer software used to access the information stored on a CD is up-to-date at the time of the conversion, and is maintained up-to-date as the technology evolves. Since the information stored on CDs is not eye-readable, extreme care to plan the conversion to this format should be taken so to insure that the software is non-proprietary, flexible, open ended and portable. Always remember that just because a technology exists doesn't mean it should be used.

Further, storing permanent records on optical media is NOT ACCEPTABLE for permanent records UNLESS those records have first been microfilmed or are filmed as imaged or immediately through computer output microfilm. Part of the reason lies in the nature of the technology. Aside from not being eye-readable, records on CDs, like those stored on computer disks, floppies, zip files, hard drives, etc., are software-dependent, and can be easily altered. In fact, for all these formats, software and hardware to read stored data must be upgraded and kept compliant and maintained in good working order to access the records throughout their retention period.

Reformatting Equipment

Most public offices in West Virginia - as elsewhere in both the public and private sectors - will need to outsource their microfilming and optical imaging work. The start up and training phases, not to mention the equipment, supplies, supervision, and quality control, are cost-prohibitive to most operations. Furthermore, few offices have staff who are available to devote their time away from their primary duties to perform these records keeping functions.

It is recommended that the State Archives, Governor's Office of Technology and Purchasing Division of state government be contacted before purchasing reformatting equipment. The State Archives has contacts with reputable vendors who may be available to provide expert assistance.

Legal Requirements for Duplicates

Film or images duplicating records must be quality checked, and all film must meet American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards. West Virginia law requires that all duplicates of original records must:

* In the case of records duplicated in a digital format, the vendor used for this process must be able to guarantee that the image - if transmitted via computer from one office to another - cannot be altered by the receiver, and this protection must be included in the price they quote.

Following duplication, it is generally permissible to destroy/recycle the originals, provided that the proper destruction procedure, as outlined below, is followed. Please note that retention schedules or some other legal authority may preclude destruction of the originals. And, if the originals are stored in an offsite location, the site must have proper storage conditions, as outlined in state guidelines.

Both the state and federal governments recognize the legal status of copies made from various sources, including electronic data stored on microfilm, CD-ROM, and optical media (see W.Va. Code, 57-1-7b, 5A-8-15c, 51-4-3, and other relevant sections).

Destroying Records After Reformatting

Once a record has been reformatted according to legal standards and any other regulations that may apply, the original may be destroyed before its stated retention period has elapsed, provided that the standard procedures for destroying records are followed. Standard procedures for records destruction involve:

  1. Complete the Authorization to Destroy Records Form by following the directions printed on it, remembering to record the record series number and to mark the record with an asterisk to note that it has been copied and stored in approved alternate format.
  2. Retain a copy of the completed form in the office files. By law, it needs to be available for audit.
  3. Submit the form to the State Archives.
  4. Upon receipt of the approval to destroy the records, file it as a permanent record and proceed with destruction of the approved records by recycling, shredding, etc.

Microfilming and Imaging Contractors

There are private microfilming and document imaging contractors in the West Virginia area that can be hired to convert paper records to microfilm or images. If you have the economic means for this option, you may want to search around for the most cost-efficient arrangement. Contact the State Archives for a complete list of reliable vendors.

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Created 2 September 2003
All or part of this handbook may be reproduced for non-commercial educational or training purposes.

Records Management and Preservation Board