“Hi, my name is Josie. I was hired two months ago as clerk of a small town, and my predecessor didn’t throw anything away. What do I do?”
We at the Local Records Unit hear from people in Josie’s situation at least twice a month. Other times, we’ll hear from veterans who have just attended one of our workshops, but have backlogs of records and don’t know where to start.
If you, like Josie, are just starting to get a handle on what and where your records are, or if you’re struggling to make time for your records, here are three small things you can do that will improve your situation.
- Open a folder
Open a drawer in your desk, or the Documents folder on your desktop. Can you immediately tell what’s inside your folders without opening them? If not, open one of the folders up, and figure out what most of the documents inside have in common (you can deal with outliers later). Now, give the folder a clear descriptive name. The tips for naming and organization that Kelly Eubank and Rachel Trent have already posted on the blog (here and here) apply here, whether you’re looking at physical or electronic records. Remember,
understandability is more important than brevity!
In Josie’s case, she opens up a file cabinet drawer and finds, in a folder labeled “1995,” a number of monthly checking and financial statements, as well as a budget worksheet and budget resolution, from Fiscal Year 1995-1996. To help get better intellectual control of the material, she writes “Financial Papers 1995-1996” on it.
- Throw out your receipts
Budgeting and financial statements are a good place to start when cleaning out old records, because they are common records, and because their section on the retention schedule is fairly easy to interpret. Most budgeting and financial items lose their value rapidly after all audits have been cleared, so the majority of financial records in the retention schedule have a period of 3 years.
Josie goes back to the folder she just labeled, with a copy of the new municipal retention schedule (which her town has already adopted) pulled up on her computer. She finds that “Bank Statements” on the schedule have a retention period of three years, so she shreds the financial statements. The remaining items in the folder she’s not so sure about, so she makes a note to call us about them later. The next time Josie finds monthly financial statements from more than three years ago, she knows she can destroy them immediately.
- Take a walk
Do you keep all your records in your office? If not, how often do you pass by them? How often do you look at them? Records are subject to all kinds of risks that can shorten their lifespan or even destroy them: if the relative humidity in a room is too high, mold can set in paper and eventually destroy it. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a walk and visit your out-of-the-way records every once in a while.
Josie’s predecessor kept all the extra records in the basement, so the next time Josie needs to leave her desk, she takes a detour that way. She notices that there’s a main pipe running above some filing cabinets, and that there’s room to shift them out of the way of any potential drips. When she gets back to her desk, she calls the janitor and asks him to shift the cabinets when he gets a chance.
None of these steps will turn Josie’s town into a records management powerhouse overnight, but it’s certainly better than doing nothing. If you can get in the habit of taking small steps to manage your records now, you will make it much easier to take big steps later.