ABCs of Records Retention

Page last updated 02/03/20

A. Retention is risk management

What does that mean? Records are kept as evidence of an organization's decisions, transactions, events, programs, culture, and community impact over time. They enable ongoing operations, provide proof of compliance, support intelligent planning for the future, chronicle the history of the institution, and elevate its prestige among its peers.

But keeping everything forever is neither cost-effective nor productive, and it creates undue risk when the records contain confidential or sensitive information. The best solution is to consistently and routinely dispose of records when they have met the retention period established by an authorized retention schedule.

B. Retention schedules authorize routine disposition

The basis for all records management programs is the records retention schedule. It is a list of commonly held records, their descriptions, and the length of time they need to be retained before final disposition, i.e., either destruction or transfer to an archive. The schedule, once approved and published, becomes the authoritative source for records disposition.

The retention period "timer" is set when the records become inactive or are no longer current. This is the "cutoff date" and is usually established as the end of a fiscal or calendar year, for greater efficiency in reviewing, processing, and disposing of records.

Keep in mind that as long as a record is active or current, it is retained. The "timer" (retention period) doesn't kick in while the record is actively being used, modified, frequently referenced, or added to (as in the case of employee personnel files). So, a retention schedule should indicate when the timer starts, as in "end of fiscal year," or "after separation from employment," or "after graduation."

IMPORTANT NOTE: Routine disposition must be suspended if any of the records are responsive to (1) current or pending litigation, (2) audit, (3) internal investigation, (4) open records request, or (5) regulatory inquiry.

The current University System of Georgia (USG) Board of Regents (BOR) Records Retention Schedule is posted online on the USG website, and as downloaded PDFs here:

A Bit o' History for History Buffs

Federal, state and local governments have sought to implement records management programs since the 1970s, but the challenges of managing government records goes back to the mid-1800s.

In 1853, according to an article by James Gregory Bradsher, the US Congress passed a law making it illegal to destroy ANY federal record. (Article available in Digital Commons.)

The Civil War and subsequent veterans-related activities caused an avalanche of new records to flood offices in Washington, D.C. with no dedicated space to put them and no authority to destroy "worthless papers."

Of course, records WERE destroyed, but not intentionally, primarily by fires in 1800, 1801, 1814, 1833, 1836, 1877, 1880, and 1887. After the 1877 fire, a commission studied the situation and concluded it had found records not worth keeping in every department. Finally on February 16, 1889, a law was passed recommending the disposition of records no longer needed to conduct business and which had no "permanent value or historical interest."

The Federal Records Act of 1950 consolidated much of the previous legislation and gave considerable authority to the General Services Administration, which had oversight of the National Archives (now National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA). In 1984 NARA became an independent agency, and per Memorandum M-19-21, has directed all Federal agencies to "manage all permanent records in an electronic format and with appropriate metadata" by the year 2022.

In Georgia, the first comprehensive legislation was passed in 1972. As Monroe M. King writes in his article, "The Georgia Records Act and Its Implementation," the previous century of records care and disposition in the state was "chaotic at best." (Read the full article in Digital Commons.) Monroe states, "Where there once was no system, there now is economy, purpose and efficiency in records keeping."

C. Permanent vs. temporary records

The records retention classification "permanent" signifies information that has enduring worth to current and future researchers, historians, academics, administrators, history students, and community members. Archivists constantly weigh the cost and risk of preserving selected records versus their ongoing, enduring value. A stable, climate-controlled and closely monitored environment is required to ensure ongoing preservation of both paper and digital records for future generations. Only institutions have the longevity and resources to support long-term preservation of archival records and artifacts.

Records that are not permanent are "temporary" records, that is, they have no enduring value past their retention period. They are maintained temporarily, from less than a year (e.g., Transitory Records) to 120 years (e.g., author/artist contracts with university presses). However, if the records are in digital form, retaining them longer than 5-10 years requires a substantial amount of resources (time, labor, technology) to guarantee their readability over time. (For more information, please contact Alissa Helms, KSU Digital Archivist, at x2695.)

Records with the shortest lifespan are "Transitory Records," and their retention is simply "Useful Life." These are the sticky notes of our daily work: our to-do lists, a note reminding us about a meeting, a marked-up copy of a draft after the final version has been published, a copy of an interesting article or website (like this one). One could argue that most of our daily work ends up as Transitory Records, and should be disposed of as soon as their usefulness has ended.

Examples of records with "Useful Life" retention in the current USG BOR retention schedule are:

  • Records used to prepare a commencement program, to develop an exhibit, or to produce a recording
  • Research grant proposal development records
  • Subject files (that do not have enduring value)
  • Correspondence files (that do not have enduring value)
  • Records such as advertising circulars, drafts and worksheets, desk notes, reference files
  • Documents of a preliminary or informational nature
  • Vendor history reports that serve as quick reference for departmental and college operations