APPRAISAL OF RECORDS IN A RECORDS AND ARCHIVES CENTER

Hans-J. Finke, Ph.D.

Records Management Officer, Ontario County

 

The Ontario County Records and Archives Center holds county government records going back to 1789 when the county was formed. For the early period, Ontario County was much larger and contained all of western New York. This means that up to 1823 - depending when the new counties were taken off - records from western New York counties are part of the holdings of the Records and Archives Center.

 

The Records and Archives Center thus has two major functions:

1) that of a storage/retrieval center of modern records from over 40 departments and

2) that of a repository of archival records with significant historical value for Ontario County and western New York.

Since the county was a gateway to western expansion, researchers from all over the United States make use of the facility. In addition, the website is accessed an average of 150,000 times per month.

 

The function of a Records Management Officer in this type of setup is somewhat schizophrenic: As Records Management Officer, I am concerned with storage space, and an ever-increasing flood of official government documents from 40 plus departments. Appraisal of  modern governmental records is essential for numerous reasons. I'll just give you some of the most important ones here:

 

1) Overall cost of maintaining records

          a) Are duplicate records being stored?

          b) Can the government really afford to retain non-essential records?

c) For those records that must be retained for the proper functioning of government, what is the most cost-effective method?

 

2) Evidential Value

          a) Are the records essential for legal purposes?

b) Are the records important for general accountability of government?

c) Are the records of future historical value?

 

Records with evidential value are usually permanent  records because they include court records, programs, policies, procedures, financial records, etc.

 

3) Informational Value

 

          a) Are the records unique rather than duplicates? (One of the most important questions in records management)

          b) Are the records of lasting informational value?

          c) What would be the ramifications, if the records did not exist?

 

Appraisal of modern and historical records is not an exact science and requires a good portion of common sense. To a significant degree, the RMO in the State of New York is aided by the various Retention Schedules produced by the State Archives. We do have guidelines to help us appraise records that need to be kept for six, 10, 25, 50 years, or permanently. However, the terminology to describe records is not always the same for local governments. As we all learn, the retention schedules are occasionally revised and updated as new information surfaces, or as Records management Officers scream at the staff of the State Archives.

 

As one archivist (Leonard Rapport) put it, in government repositories, we are working with public records, instruments created for a purpose. These records are to serve our citizens in one way or another (although I suspect that some citizens would be very glad if some records disappeared).

 

At the same time, however, we have an obligation to our citizens to keep the cost down by NOT preserving records of questionable value. Government offices make it part of their culture to create records in at least triplicate form. We just went through an exercise where we questioned the necessity of triplicate forms. You may not realize what revolutionary idea this is!

Just a couple of examples: We had leave request forms in triplicate to be kept by departments, Human Resources, and the Treasurer's Office. And yes, all three eventually wound up at the Records and Archives Center. The information is also in the computer system, appears on the employee pay stub, and on a printed list sent to the departments. Obviously, this is overkill and an appraisal of what documents need to be kept and for how long is an essential part of records management. When I first came to the Records and Archives Center, I was told by my predecessor that the Center would be full in three months. The center was storing duplicates of all bi-weekly payroll slips in duplicate. It was an easy removal of 600 cubic feet of records.

 

I need to mention, however, that since 9/11 we are analyzing records which are absolutely essential for the continued functioning of government. The permanent records are no major problem because they are microfilmed and the master is stored out of state. Non-permanent records are another matter because there is no backup for them. The post-9/11 appraisal will thus - at least in some cases - reverse the old policy of removing all duplication of records.

 

We could go through example after example, but that would be unfair to you and my colleagues here. However, I do want to say a few words about archival records, although Suzanne will go into more details, I am sure.

 

To make it a more personal issue, I just would like you to imagine your reaction, if we lost your deed records or the record showing that you paid off you mortgage. As RMO, I have to appraise the impact the loss of archival records would have first on the general citizen and secondly on the researcher.

 

After appraising the importance of archival records to be discussed by Suzanne, there are some other issues:

a) How often are the records accessed by researchers, and what damage can be expected to already brittle documents.

b) What records should be made available only on microfilm?

c) What records need to go through an expensive conservation process?

d) What records need to be duplicated on microfilm and/or electronic format and stored off site?

 

(Presented as part of a panel discussion at LOAC's U[state New York's Archives Conference, 6/14/02)