There is something to be said about managing expectations in a field where terms like “best practices” are thrown around in casual conversations at happy hour as often as in staff meetings. Best practices as a term doesn’t leave much in the way for wiggle room – either your records program is doing its best, or it isn’t. Before I set out to write this post, my boss told me that discussing some of the challenges of records management storage would likely be outliers in comparison to most other universities with climate controlled spaces and ample shelves that allow housing individual boxes. Those sorts of things are just beyond our reach at this time and as a result, these best practices function as a sort of Holy Grail for which we at University Records Management (URM) must continually quest.
While the quest for achieving best practices might seem like a daunting prospect, even without sassy Frenchmen hurling abuse from high towers, but as records managers we cannot be cowardly knights. We need to make the best of the tools at hand. Even if it seems like you’re teetering precariously above the Gorge of Eternal Peril, you must remember that “best practices” are what you can do with the resources at hand. Best practices can often seem like this ironclad, irreproachable ideal that prohibit any effort at all that isn’t going to achieve it. But, at Mason, and I am sure at a lot of other places, the ideal of best practices does not and should not deter records keepers from doing their best.
Monty Python jokes aside, if you look to some of my previous blog posts, you’ll find I covered the renovation/relocation of all of George Mason’s non-permanent records from one side of the Facilities Warehouse to the other. This renovation was performed in scorching conditions by a very dedicated team over the course of two weeks. The space that the records now occupy looks markedly similar to where they once were. The new space consists of boxes on pallets on elevated shelves, now covered in protective plastic wrapping and corner protectors, all nestled behind a fifteen foot high locking fence. The warehouse itself received no updates, and is largely not climate controlled, open to critters, and with boxes stacked on top of each other. Far from best practices, but still rather good given what we are working with. While we may not have all the ideal conditions for records keeping, like climate control, or individual box shelving, we have taken a variety of steps to ensure the safety of our records using the resources we have.
Plastic wrapping keeps moisture and pests out of boxes. Old wooden pallets are steadily being swapped with nearly invincible high density polymer pallets. Boxes are replaced as they age. The fence ensures that only those approved by URM can access the area. All of these are rather inexpensive alternatives to purchasing a multi-billion dollar facility dedicated to the storage of records. Best practices, may be the ideal, but they are also quite often prohibitively expensive. (For a better sense of the ins and outs of physical box best practices see the site in the notes below.)
Given that it is the legal responsibility of the University to retain its non-permanent records, using a little bit of money carefully can ensure their longevity and while these practices might not be the “best” as determined by ARMA, SAA or other organizations, they can be the best for an individual’s situation. Part of this also means effectively controlling expectations of the offices involved in the records-keeping process. As we will cover later this Records Management month, proper outreach can go a long way in ensuring that retention guidelines are met even in a less than perfect records environment.
While the records warehouse is physically secure, offices looking to store their records should not have to undertake a quest themselves to know what is happening to their boxes. If it lacks climate control, as ours does, don’t keep that a secret! Proper communication and outreach with clients helps to defeat problems before they arise. This is especially important when it comes to dealing with materials that are not so durable– media items like CDs, hard drives, and microfiche have much tighter environmental tolerances than paper. Because of this, we do not allow offices to store them with us. Instead, we provide them with guidance and support in finding long term alternatives to these sorts of records – we guide them towards cloud storage on their own drives, or digitization and scanning options for older materials like microfilm.
Best practices do not have to be a rigid set of guidelines that loom over your department member’s heads. Your office’s quest for the Holy Grail of best practices may be never ending, but that’s just the nature of records keeping on the whole. Do not let that deter you from questing in the first place. Rather, the best practices that your office observes should be those that you can achieve and that ensure your records meet their retention guidelines. This means setting standards and guides not only for your own office, but also those outside the realm of records management. Establish expectations, not promises, and be open with your superiors and clients with the shortcomings (and also the successes) of the department.
Guides to Physical Records best practices: