The maintenance, preservation, and accessibility of North Carolina’s public records are all under the purview of the records custodian. The Society of American Archivists publication, A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines custodian as “the individual or organization having possession of and responsibility for the care and control of material.” It is important that records custodians in state and local government offices manage the records in their office according to established retention and disposition schedule. These schedules are available on our website.
It is relevant to note that General Statue § 132-2 of the Public Records Law designates the records custodian as the “public official in charge of an office having public records.” The law further elucidates these responsibilities:
1) Maintain the records in office (G.S. § 132-3). Records need to be retained in your office for the length of time prescribed by your retention schedule. Records designated as permanent by the schedule must be kept either in your office or at the State Archives of North Carolina. Certain records are designated as permanently valuable due to their legal and evidentiary value. These records protect the rights citizens of North Carolina, as well as provide transparency by documenting the actions of government. Records should never be out of the custody of the creating agency without both the consent of the agency and the State Archives as prescribed in G.S. § 132-3.
2) Allow the inspection of records under reasonable conditions (G.S. § 132-6). There is no specification in the Public Records Law of how the public must access public records. The means of access is left to the discretion of the agency. The public should not be given direct access if such an action would compromise the security and safety of the records themselves. Common sense urges caution where valuable records are concerned. Hardcopy and digital file storage areas may contain both “open” and “closed” (confidential) records material, and the alteration, destruction, or theft of files represent clear dangers to public records. Confidential records are not open for public inspection. (See also this blog entry: Give me all your records)
3) Keep the records safe (G.S. § 132-7). The longer the retention period, the better the conditions in which the records should be kept. Providing a stable storage environment is critical to the long-term sustainability and accessibility of the records in your custody. If records are not stored under proper conditions they will be susceptible to a variety of hazards, including vermin (rats, bats, birds, etc.), bugs, and mold. When conditions are not safe for records they can also pose environmental hazards to the records custodian and the public referencing them. (See also this blog entry: What are the optimal storage conditions for records?)
4) Preserve, transfer, and destroy records per the Records Retention and Disposition Schedules created by the Department of Cultural Resources (G.S. § 132-8). For local agencies, we recommend that you report on your records retention activities to your governing board on an routine basis (at least annually). This report does not need to be detailed, but it is important that significant destructions be entered into the minutes of the Board.
Failure to comply with these responsibilities invariably lead to difficult—if not expensive—consequences down the road for yourself and/or your successors. Every agency has limited space, time, and money and must use these resources judiciously. If there are any red flags about the record-keeping in your office, please contact your records management analyst to discuss. Furthermore, we offer onsite workshops and online tutorials designed to assist you in your day-to-day operations.