Retention Schedules

What is a retention schedule?

The scheduling process

Safeguards against improper disposition

Vital Record and Institutional Access Status

How long should we keep our records?


A clearly defined plan for record retention and disposition is a vital component of a complete records management program. This section of the website will look at the records retention schedule, and how it works to ensure that records are kept neither too short, nor too long a period of time; and that they are disposed properly and deliberately.

What is a retention schedule?

A retention schedule is a simple document that lists the names of the record series produced by your office, along with their agreed retention periods and disposition methods. (For an example of this document, see this sample.)  A full Retention Schedule will list not only the Record Series (physical records) but also the retention policies applied to digital records in the department's File Plan.

By using a Retention Schedule Records Management can ensure that all records are retained and disposed according to a plan that is agreed to by your office, Records Management, and other authorities on campus who have a stake in how long records are kept. This section of the website details how this document is created and implemented.

The scheduling process.

A Records Retention Schedule is a policy document that is formulated by the Records Manager and the Records Custodian of each department. This document is reviewed periodically (typically, once each year) to ensure that new record series and classifications that have been created since the last round of retention scheduling are covered, and to verify that current retention decisions should remain in effect. The following information is on the retention schedule:

  • Record series names
  • Series descriptions
  • Retention periods (based on material date or class year)
  • Disposition methods
  • Approval dates for each series
  • For digital records, the existing File Plan is displayed, along with the Retention Periods and Disposition Methods for each node

Once the Records Custodian and the Records Manager have reached agreement on the retention schedules for all stored material, the retention schedule is verified and signed by both parties.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Retention periods are usually measured from the actual date of the material itself, not the date the material was transferred to Records Management. However, Records Management also measures retention periods based on key event dates, such as Contract Close, Class Year, Graduation Date, Grant Period, etc.  Contact the Records Manager for more information on how to set up retention schedules with these event dates.

The final step in the process is the presentation of the retention schedule to the Records Management Policy Committee. This group is charged with reviewing and approving all retention schedules formulated by the Records Custodian and the Records Manager. The committee contains representatives from the following departments (in most cases it is the department director who sits on the committee):

  • Archives
  • Business Affairs
  • Administrative Computing
  • Controller
  • Equal Opportunity / Affirmative Action
  • Human Resources
  • Legal Affairs
  • Library
  • Records Management
  • Risk Management

In most cases approval is quickly granted and the retention schedule approved. However in some cases a member of the committee may provide additional information or voice concerns. In this event they may ask that a retention schedule be revisited. The Records Manager will then work with the department and the Committee to ensure that all parties' concerns are addressed. Once this happens, the Records Retention Committee representative signs the retention schedule, and it goes into effect.

Safeguards against improper disposition.

No record is ever disposed without an approved retention schedule that has been signed by the Records Manager, the Records Custodian, and a representative of the Records Management Policy Committee. Until this document is signed and in place, all records are retained. The Records Manager is only authorized to dispose of records for which the retention scheduling process has been properly followed.

In addition, once the schedule is in place, the Records Custodian will be notified in advance of any records to be disposed, and be given the opportunity to place those records on hold if necessary. See the Disposition section of this website for more information on this process.

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 informaton 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.

If you would like more guidance in determining record retention times and disposition methods, contact the Records Manager.

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)


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