Records Management – When Does a Document Become a Record?
The answer is simple: “A document becomes a record when the description of the document’s content can be found on the company’s official records retention schedule.” To be more precise, “A original document becomes an official record when the content of a document matches words and phrases on the company’s official records retention schedule.” Note that a copy of an official record is called an unofficial record.
Note the words, “original,” “official,” and “copy.” Ah, for the tough decisions of a records manager. Now you can start to see the challenges of being a records manager. For example, if the official record (original) is destroyed or deleted, the copy becomes the official record and must be properly protected and saved. But what if the original is destroyed and there were 10 copies produced. One of those 10 copies is the original, but which one? In the ideal situation, the records manager keeps track of all electronic and physical documents and records. Ideally, the records manager must be able to contact those individuals that possess known copies when the original is destroyed.
Complicated? Yes, it is. And I know of NO records manager who has ever been able to successfully follow the paper trial of a document from creation to use and to disposition. Now it is possible to control these documents and records tightly if the records manager has a large staff, if the company is small, and if the funds are unlimited. If anyone has a good solution, please visit my website and email me.
Is there way to declare a document a record? Of course, many people will call a document a record when the content has legal, fiscal, operational, historical, or business value, but this is too vague for me. With this method, too many records managers have a tendency to declare all documents as records and be done with it. And lo and behold, now you know why there are often thousands upon thousands “extra” records being stored offsite or even onsite. Why you ask? Because now when the file cabinets get full, all documents, records, and unofficial records are stored offsite. If you agree with the first method that a document is only considered a record when it can be found on the records retention schedule, then the only record that should concern you is the official, original document. All others should be given a short life and destroyed.
Conclusion: Documents only become records when they meet two key characteristics: (1) content matches descriptions on the company’s official records retention schedule; and (2) the documents are originals. All other documents are copies and can be destroyed when they are no longer referenced frequently.