How Long Should We Keep Our Records?
Unfortunately, there is no definitive guide to record retention periods and disposition methods. Each record series needs and classification within your file plan must be examined individually in regard to usage patterns, departmental needs, historic value and legal issues.
Records Management currently holds material anywhere from 1 to 100 years, depending on a variety of factors. Even records that may appear similar between two departments often have very different usage patterns, and thus require very different retention strategies. However, the following two approaches may help you to formulate proper retention policies.
The "HALF-Life" Model
Many Records Custodians have found it helpful to evaluate their records based on the "HALF-Life" Model. In this model, we find that a record typically displays value in each of four categories:
• Historic: Does the record document an important part of Dartmouth's history? Will it be a valuable resource to researchers many years from now?
• Administrative: How often do you actually use the material? What is the value of the information to your daily operation? At what point would not having the material available cease to be a serious hardship?
• Legal: Are there any external requirements to maintain the information, either from governmental or granting agencies? Does the record help to prevent a legal liability? Or does it perhaps pose a liability, even after the administrative value has disappeared?
• Fiscal: Is the information necessary for tax or audit purposes? Is it helpful in future budget and fiscal planning?
After evaluating a record series or node of your file plan in each of these four categories, in most cases you will have a good sense of how long the records should be kept.
It is also important to keep in mind that a record does not need to have lost all value in order to be disposed. There are many cases where a record still has some minor administrative value, but it is not enough to offset the storage and maintenance costs associated with maintaining the record. (This is most often true with very large sets with very low access frequencies.) In these cases, it may be appropriate to dispose of the record, despite the continuing administrative value.
The Robek Model
A more “textbook” approach is provided by Robek, Brown and Stephens, recognized authorities in the area of Records Retention:
1. Avoid the “Every Conceivable Contingency” syndrome.
2. Information should be retained if there is a reasonable probability that it will be needed in some future time to support some legitimate legal or business objective, and the consequences of its absence would be substantial.
3. Retention policies should generally be conservative, in the sense that they should not expose the organization to an inordinate degree of risk.
4. Remember, the presence or absence of information can be either helpful or harmful; therefore the best way to minimize the risks is to provide for systematic disposal immediately after the expiration of a document’s value for legal and business purposes.
5. A retention period is most likely to be valid if it is based on a consensus of the opinions of persons most knowledgeable about the value of the information and the costs, risks, and benefits of its disposal.
—Robek, Mary F.; Brown, Gerald F.; and Stephens, David O.; Information and Records Management (New York: McGraw Hill, 1995)