Create a Basic Retention Schedule in 5 Steps

Heidi Steed Guidelines, Records Management

Records retention is simply a practice by which an organization maintains their records for set lengths of time, and systems in which they use to either redirect, store, or dispose of those records. The records retention schedule is the policy which guides this practice, by clearly defining how long a record must be kept and the guidelines for how records should be discarded, or sent to an archive for permanent preservation. This is done by spelling out the regulatory, legal or business need for a record, and keeping them for only as long as that need exists. Whether you’re creating a series specific retention schedule with the State Archives, creating your own municipal general records retention schedule or just looking to get your records a little bit more organized, get started by creating a basic records retention schedule following these five steps: 

Step one: identify the records you are keeping

You can’t begin any records management project without first knowing what records you keep. Take some time to inventory the records you’re managing. Don’t forget to inventory your electronic records too. Retention schedules are based on the information contained in the records, not the media format. So, electronic records will follow the same retention schedules as their paper equivalents.  

While inventorying your records make sure to pay attention to any reproductions or duplicates that you make. These duplicates won’t follow the official retention schedule, and can cause confusion if they aren’t properly identified and managed. The official retention schedule you create will apply to the version of the record you designate as the “record copy” or “official copy.” Make sure you have a handle on routine maintenance of copies so they aren’t being mixed up with your official record. Know which person or department will be in charge of creating and storing the official record copy, so they know to follow the approved retention schedule. 

Step two: describe your business need for the records

Knowing how long to keep your records is really about knowing what use you have for them. Once you have inventoried the records you keep, take some time to describe what functions they help you carry out in your office. Gather information about how the records are organized, and how people in the office will know how to identify and find them if they need them. 

Step three: determine the length of time to keep your records to meet your needs

Records get created because they help us carry out our job functions. They provide information we need to complete tasks and can provide evidence that something occurred. Records should be kept as long as they serve a purpose. There are often needs for the records after their immediate business purpose has been met, so you may need to do some research to find out if there are any laws or statutes that regulate additional legal needs for your records. Also, consider if the records you’re creating have historical value in describing the work of your agency or information about the community. You can always consult with the State Archives if you need more information about historical records appraisals. 

Step four: assess how your records are disbursed, accessed and stored

Records are only useful if we know how to find them when we need them. Records will need to be properly stored as they wait out their approved retention. Take some time to consider how you will store the various records you create, whether that is in a physical storage space, or if you will be managing them electronically on a local server, or in a cloud storage system. You will want to account for how the various records users in your offices will access the records when they need them to do their jobs and organize them accordingly. Ensure that if you create records that only certain employees should access, they are secured in a way that prevents unauthorized access. This is also a good time to consider public access to the records, and train staff on the proper procedures for providing records that have been requested, including knowing what types of information should be restricted. 

Step five: develop procedures for destroying or archiving your records

Once a record has met its retention, you need to determine whether it should be destroyed or archived. Records that have historical value should be sent to an approved archive. Records that have no other uses after their business and legal needs are exhausted can be destroyed when their retention has been met. Routinely destroying records can ensure that you are saving money on storage and protecting your agency against potentially disclosing personal and protected information. Have a process for routinely destroying records, and make sure that everyone is aware of their role in making sure they are doing their part. 

Documenting your procedure can help make sure everyone is informed about which records are no longer accessible, and can provide legal defensibility in the event that records are requested after retention has been met. Retention schedules are important because they can be legally defensible policies that provide an agency with peace of mind when providing access to and destroying records, allowing an agency to confidently explain the existence or nonexistence of records they create.