An effective records management program is a system that tracks the life cycle of each record. It means knowing when a record is created, what function it serves, how long it is considered useful by the agency that created it, what the parameters are for maintaining it and for how long, and what legal authority enables it eventually to be destroyed and when, if at all.
The benefits of an effective program are many:
Definition of a Record
The Public Records Management and Preservation Act of the West Virginia Code defines a public record as a "document, book, paper, photograph, sound recording or other material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business." Formats can include paper, microforms, electronic records, magnetic tapes, maps, disks, photographs, film and sound recordings. In short, records are the institutional memory of an office and the lifeblood of a local government. They are used to answer all sorts of questions relating to past and present policy and business actions.
The term "public record" refers to a government record, but it doesn't follow that these records must always be available to the public (e.g. personnel records are to be kept confidential). In any case, public records must be available for appropriate access throughout their retention period. The Freedom of Information Act of the West Virginia Code (29B-1 ff) governs access to public records.
The Life Cycle of a Record
The responsibility for maintaining a record during its active office life is that of the official in charge of the office that generates the record. Maintaining the record, especially for long periods of time or permanently, requires trained staff who take into consideration the type and value of the record, the most efficient system for organizing and accessing the record, and procedures for protecting the record. In most cases, the location for storage is the office where the record was created. Other options include moving the record to an off-site storage location (and taking responsibility for all corresponding costs), or, if the record has some historical, research, or special value, it may be eligible to be transferred to the State Archives.
When storage space is limited, some non-permanent records may be reformatted from their original medium to a more space-efficient medium, such as microfilm. Once a duplicate that captures the original in a durable form is created, the original record may be transferred or destroyed as directed by the records schedule (given permission by the administrator of the office).
NOTE: For the sake of space and convenience of use, many government offices are considering the use of some form of digitized storage. Please consult with State Archives before committing to any vendor of these systems, for there are certain restrictions for the digitization of some records.
Unless the record is permanent or transferable to the State Archives, it must be disposed of after its respective shelf life. An office's Records Officer writes a letter of "intent to destroy" that lists the record and sends the letter to the State Archives for prior approval. Upon approval by the State Archives the record may be destroyed. Destruction options include recycling, burning, shredding, or burying at a landfill. When recycling is a viable option, it is recommended as the most responsible means of disposition. After its disposition, the record will be permanently gone, but a copy of the intent to destroy will be retained by the creating office.
Maintaining the "Official Memory" of West Virginia
Each year, county records with substantial historical, legal, financial, and administrative value are pitched out, shredded, or otherwise disposed of without proper measures taken to assess their worth. This loss means that parts of the history of West Virginia are gone and cannot be recovered. Just as tragic is when moribund records of no real value are preserved, cluttering up precious shelf space and turning local archives into dusty, overgrown wastelands virtually inaccessible to the public.
Natural and human-made disasters are always an impending threat. West Virginia has had more than its fair share of flooding, and many records have been lost or ruined by the waters. Fires are also extremely common. Many electronic records are lost by computer viruses and faulty computer equipment. Other electronic records are irretrievable because the equipment required to access them no longer exists or no longer functions. More often than not, though, even these disasters can be prevented with a little planning and foresight.
Another obstacle to effective records keeping is a lack of consistency in management and maintenance practices in many offices across the state. Records Officers may inherit filing systems they want to change. While such restructuring is often necessary, such changes can also complicate office procedure and hinder efficient retrieval of old and new records. Also, Records Officers may refer to the same record by different names that can create confusion from office to office. And, finally, some records practices have been around a very long time, and the temptation to continue a practice because "we've always done it this way" is very strong. Consistency in records management is very important, but it must be remembered that every active filing system in every office, everywhere, is a dynamic system that changes naturally and very often. Such filing systems are never "set up" as many would refer to their imposition of a structure on their records, but if the structure is well thought out, it will be elastic enough to accommodate a variety of variables. When the filing scheme is clearly explained to others, that system will be easy for everyone to maintain and use.
The Role of the Records Officer
The governing body and the chief elected official of any unit of each county, hereinafter referred to as a county government entity, whether organized and existing under a charter or under a general law, shall promote the principles of efficient records management and preservation of local records. 5A-8-15a of the W. Va. Code.
For the purposes of this manual, Records Officer refers to anyone who plays a supervisory or administrative role over any government records for a county office, unit, or agency. "Records Officer" is broad enough to include a variety of other titles: Records Clerk, Records Manager, Records Administrator, Records Custodian, and Records Keeper, among other similar titles.
Most Records Officers are office workers with formal job descriptions that do not include "records management." Employees who are chosen to perform these extra duties should be very experienced and/or those with the greatest broad knowledge concerning office operations. They should also be very familiar with West Virginia statutes regarding records keeping in his or her particular office.
The duties of the Records Manager may include performing and/or directing the performance of the following:
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Records Management and Preservation Board