Records Management 101

What is physical records management?

Everything you need to know about physical records and paper records management, including key terms, definitions, process overview & how to be successful.

Physical Records are records that we can touch. They take up physical space, such as records or paper or media such as CDs.

A record is a piece of data or content maintained for a legal purpose. The purpose may be to follow regulations. It may be for an organizational reason, such as proof of a transaction or historical purposes.

Records management involves managing records throughout their lifecycle. Physical records management is managing assets that you can touch throughout the lifecycle.

Here is an overview of the physical records management lifecycle:

The Physical Records Life cycle including phases, definitions, and how to steps

  1. Identify: Decide what is a record and classify it according to the file plan.
  2. Store: Put the record in the correct location.
  3. Track Movement: Manage records requests, loans, and track the record’s location.
  4. Dispose: Approve records for disposal and destroy them.

Let’s take a deeper look at the activities that occur in each phase of the physical records lifecycle.

Identify Physical Records

This stage in the lifecycle is to identify what physical content to keep as a record. An organization will have a definition of a record. It usually outlines the types of data to keep, as well as examples of what are not records.

There also may be routine business processes that create records. Identifying physical records is often a manual process. Be sure to train employees on how to identify records.

Physical records may be pieces of paper or groups of paper. We may digitize paper or electronic records and store on media. Media could be a laser disk or CD, which we keep as a physical records asset.

Once we identify a record, the records manager will assign a file plan category. A file plan category has an associated retention schedule.

A file plan contains a list of all types of records that an organization should keep.

A retention schedule defines how long we keep records in the category. This schedule is often known as a retention period.

The retention period triggered in two ways. First, from a time, e.g., seven years after someone creates the document. Second, from an event, e.g., three years after an employment end date.

We then generate a barcode to track the location of the record. The barcode may be generated by a records management system. We will then store record according to company policy.

Sometimes we do not identify a record and assign a retention period. We call this an unscheduled record. An unscheduled record could also be a record that is eligible for disposal. But, we have not approved disposal.

Store Physical Records

Each organization handles the storage of physical records differently. They may keep some records in the office. This location is sometimes called a file room. We often do this if we need records for reference.

Other organizations may own and manage their offsite facilities for storage. Still, others may outsource the storage of their records. Or, an organization may use both types of storage.

Organizations do not usually track physical records as a single piece of paper. They may track the record as a folder, or even as a volume, which is many folders tracked as one unit. Create volumes when there is too much content to fit into a single folder. We manage retention across all volumes. Do not dispose of a volume until all the related volumes reach the end of their retention period.

A volume is also sometimes called a logical record when there is too much content to fit into one box. We then place the records or volumes into a box. We also include a records inventory sheet which outlines all the records in the box.

Another way we organize physical records is as a records series. A record series are records that have similar traits, such as a common subject. They may result from the same business process, come from the same type of transaction, or have a similar use. A mixed record series contains both physical and electronic records.

Often there will be both physical and electronic content together in one file. We refer to this file type as a hybrid record. Because of this, it is important to have a single file plan and retention schedule. It should cover all content in your organization, whether electronic or physical.

No matter where people store records it is important that we describe their location. This approach is so we can retrieve the record when needed. An organization will use different terms to track location. Some examples include building, room, row, shelf, bin, box, and folder. People often organize physical records according to the year of disposal. This method makes the retrieval of physical records easier.

Explains how physical and paper records are stored, managed, organized, and filed

Space management is a consideration when deciding how to store physical records. Space costs money, and it is best to optimize where we place the content. There is physical records software available that may help with space management. It will suggest where to store records.

Track the Movement of Physical Records

Tracking the movement of physical records is often the most complex lifecycle phase. It is where records we are the most likely to lose or damage a record and requires the most management. There are four phases in the movement of physical records:

The movement, check in and check out, and loans of physical records or paper records

  • Request: A person makes a physical records request when they need to view the record.
  • Request fulfillment: We check out the record and send it to the person’s location.
  • Loan: The period when the record is away from its “home” location.
  • Return to home: Checking the file back in and returning it to its home location.

We should keep an audit trail which lists any events or changes to the record. We keep this trail throughout the record’s lifecycle. The audit trail should include any movement of the record.

Physical Records Request

If someone needs to look at the physical record, they will make a loan request for the record. This request usually involves sending a form to the records manager. The records manager would then approve or deny the request.

Another type of request is a legal hold. Sometimes we involve a record in litigation, a court case, or lawsuit. We create a legal hold to group the records needed for the case. We will also put the records on freeze. This freeze is so no one can make changes to the content. It also prevents disposal if we reach the retention period while under legal hold.

Physical Records Request Fulfillment

Once the records manager approves the request, it goes on a list that the warehouse will retrieve.  A warehouse worker will then scan the record’s barcode to check it out and prepare it for shipping.

Sometimes we ship an entire box of records instead of individual folder or record. We do this because it is easier to track and there is less chance of losing an entire box. It is also important to mention that the warehouse is the home location of the record. The current location is where the record is at that moment.

Physical Records Loan

The records manager will keep a list of what records are currently checked out and their due dates. The person who checked out the record handles keeping it safe and intact during the loan period. This person will also usually receive email reminders when it is time to return the item.

A record can sometimes become lost during the loan period. In this case, we mark it as a lost record in the records management system.

Physical Records Return

At some point, we reach the due date of the loan. The person who checked out the record should ship it back to its home location. Once received, the warehouse will scan the barcode to check it in, and the loan is over.

Another stage which may occur in the lifecycle of physical records is archival. For example, we may keep an active physical record in an office file room. This approach is in case we need it for reference on a weekly or monthly basis. Once we no longer need the record for reference, it becomes an inactive physical record. We may archive it to a third-party warehouse for the rest of the retention period. This move frees up space in the office file room.

Dispose of Physical Records

We can dispose of physical records when they reach the end of their retention period. Some organizations may approve and destroy physical records as they are eligible. Or we may do batch once a quarter or year. Sometimes a record happens to be out on loan when it becomes due for disposal. In this case, someone will need to send it back to its home location.

Most physical records need approval before we dispose of them. Your organizational policies should state who approves disposal. In most cases, we can electronically approve, such as over email. We may also approve through a records management system. Once approved the records management software will send a list of records to destroy. Usually, we shred the documents to destroy them.

We may never dispose of some records. Permanent records are those records that have historical or other value. We should keep them forever. Accessioning is the process of transferring physical and legal custody. It transfers the permanent record from one agency to another.

Another type of record that we will never delete is a vital record. A vital record is proof of life events kept under governmental authority. This category includes birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates.

We hope this overview of physical records was helpful. If we left out any key terms or processes, or if you have questions, please let us know in the comments!

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