The UK’s Records Management Society defines records management as, “the process by which a company manages all the elements of records whether externally or internally generated and in any format or media type, from their inception/receipt, all the way through to their disposal”. In this digital age many organisations have set up comprehensive systems to ensure that electronic records are safely stored and backed up, with a plan in place should an unexpected crisis occur. This makes a great deal of sense since some estimates suggest that over 90% of businesses that have had a major data processing disaster will go out of business within 5 years.
These days most employees rely on electronic systems to do their job and lost or damaged files can spell disaster. However while IT systems are often carefully considered and any perceived emergencies planned for, paper records can frequently be neglected. It’s difficult to pinpoint why this is except to say that perhaps manual records are considered unimportant when compared to expensive IT systems. Perhaps it is also the case that the sheer physicality of a paper record makes people (wrongly) believe it is not as important to safeguard as a computer file that could more easily be destroyed or corrupted. But to take this viewpoint is ill advised and short sighted.
Many organisations are under a legal obligation to keep certain records for a specified period of time. For example, financial institutions are now required to keep mortgage loan files for up to ten years after the loan has been repaid. Some medical records must be stored throughout the life of the patient and government institutions are now required to keep certain records for up to 50 years. Companies pay a high price for inadequate record keeping. In January 2003 The Bank of Scotland was fined £1.25m for breaching anti-money laundering rules on the identification of customers because it had failed to retain a copy of customer ID or a record of where it was kept. Often there is a legal requirement to keep the original paper document even when it exists electronically and in any action, the legal weight of records will be greater if the original version is produced. The Business Archives Council, which promotes the preservation of business records of historical importance, gives some other reasons why it can be prudent to save original documents.
Among their points are:
* Transparent corporate governance
Good record-keeping is an integral part of transparent corporate governance. The implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the US has brought heightened scrutiny of an organisation’s internal controls and practices. Trustworthy and accurate records serve as a bedrock for a company’s reporting systems and ensure that they comply with best practice
* A key part of Corporate Social Responsibility
Caring for your heritage can be a key part of a Corporate Social Responsibility policy. Businesses have impacted on the lives of their staff, customers, shareholders and on the communities in which they operate. Business archives record how lives have been affected and changed. Some companies have publicly acknowledged that their own histories are an important piece in the jigsaw of the past and that they have a duty of care to their own archives. Making business archives accessible to the public is a real contribution to the community.
* Brand Building
The past can be used to support present performance. Archives add detail and depth to the public image of a company, differentiating it from the competition. Celebrating significant anniversaries or birthdays brings the long-standing nature and the achievements of the company to the fore. Historic information and images can also be used to support particular brands emphasising their position in the market place.
* A market for nostalgia
Exploiting your heritage can bring in revenue. Companies with well known advertising and packaging logos and images can licence their reproductions in all kinds of ways: the Guinness Toucan, Colman’s mustard and Pears soap are just a few examples of well known images that bring in money for their owners.
Archives can be used within a business to inform and educate new recruits about a company’s history and successes and pass on company values and principles. Archives can also be used as an educational resource by learners of all ages – some companies have produced very popular and highly regarded educational resources aimed at schoolchildren.
Clearly some of these points would not be put under the heading of ‘Business Critical’ but they do give further background as to why paper records can be so important.
The first rule of thumb for any organisation should be to asses their records according to the following criteria: business value, legal value, administrative value, historical value. The records can then be classed as vital, important, useful or non-essential. For those records deemed vital, the next step is to ensure that the storage of those records is an integral part of your business continuity plan and this means considering how and where they are stored. In exactly the same way as you would safeguard your IT systems and electronic records, consideration should be given to the possible disaster scenarios and how you can guard against loss or damage of those records.
For many companies the first obvious factor to think about is physical location. A Morgan Stanley Brokers note in June 2003 estimated that 70% of businesses are storing records on their own premises. Clearly this has huge implications should that office be subject to any kind of negative event. The horrific and devastating events of 9/11 showed all too clearly the potential risks of storing vital business records on site with many thousands of important documents destroyed. But if not on site then where is the best place? Some companies discount off site storage for those records that are deemed ‘active’ since they can be concerned that, should they need them, it will be a difficult process to retrieve them but any professional records management company should be able to deliver a document back to you within 24 hours and/or a scanned electronic version within a few hours.
If that is not acceptable then consideration should be given to copying the record and placing the original off site. The same factors apply to long term or ‘inactive’ storage. When deciding on an off site storage provider another important point to consider includes the environmental conditions of the site. Paper needs to be stored in cool consistent temperatures with a tight humidity band. It is worth reading through BS5454 since this sets the environmental standard for the storage of archival documents. Other points to assess include the risk of flood, fire or terrorist attack and, should any of these occur, how does the records management company in question plan ahead to handle it.
The National Archives previously known as the Public Records Office, has some of the country’s most important records. Acting as the UK government’s official archive, The National Archives looks after many thousands of documents containing 900 years of history from the Domesday Book to the present. The National Archives keep the majority of their material at their headquarters in Kew but they also keep a portion of their archive off site at DeepStore. They suggest that, in order to minimise damage to paper records, organisations should consider the following when planning for disaster.
* The best way to deal with potential disasters is to stop them happening. A first step is to identify and assess sources of potential risk in terms of the probability of an incident occurring, and likely impact if it does, including the costs of recovery.
* The process should include a detailed inspection of the premises and operational activities on site, and consultation with staff in each work area, particularly those such as caretakers or cleaners who have day to day responsibility for the building. It may also be necessary to consult specialist external sources of advice from individuals such as fire prevention offices, security advisers, insurance providers and a qualified conservator.
* Risk assessments should be reviewed at least annually to take account of changed circumstances and a systematic logging of any previous incidents will help to refine those assessments.
* In addition, it is important to be aware of temporary increases in risk, e.g. due to the presence of contractors on-site, extreme weather conditions, unusual activity in adjacent premises. Common sources of risk to paper records (of varying degrees of seriousness) include extreme weather, leaking roofs, plumbing problems, smoking, poor storage of inflammable materials, malfunctioning electrical wiring, lighting, arson or vandalism (up to half of UK fire are started deliberately), gas leaks, industrial accidents in nearby premises and terrorism.
Anna Buelow, Head of Preservation, at The National Archives gives some advice as to how a company should tackle a problem if, despite planning to avoid it, the worst occurs and paper records are damaged by water. She explains, “The prime concern in a disaster situation is to take what measures are necessary to salvage or limit the damage to as many of the records as possible. Ideally, the recovery process should start with a preliminary assessment of those documents in the affected area, designated as being the most valuable or important, identified by the first senior member of staff to come on site.
“For slightly damaged material it may be possible to air dry the items. This should be done in a large, well ventilated area and supervised by an experienced professional if possible. Anything that is saturated should be removed from boxes, packed in polythene bags and labeled. They should then be frozen and dealt with by a specialist agency.”
And what about fire damage? Specialist company Harwell Restoration Services offer the following advice, “Depending on the design of a given building during a fire the smoke residues can travel great distances from the source of the actual fire, potentially creating widespread damage, even if the fire itself only affected one room. Within an office or library, this smoke can present an immense problem, as without restoration, the damaged paper will not safe or practical to use. Fire damage is restorable in the vast majority of cases. Tightly packed paper will not necessarily burn and damage, chiefly caused by smoke residue, is usually restricted to the outer edges, leaving the information inside the book block, archive box or file in tact.”
So when considering off site records management companies it is important to make sure that they have first rate storage facilities. Look carefully at all their systems and ask lots of questions. It’s also worth thinking about where they are sited since even if their building or unit seems safe, a fire or flood in a neighbouring unit could cause real problems.
Despite the emergence of the so-called ‘electronic age, it is clear that there will be a need to store paper records for many years to come. In the light of this is it vital that they are treated as a key part of the business and every company’s business continuity plan should take this into account.