If there’s one category of public records that can be relied upon to cause confusion and anxiety among records custodians and chief records officers, it’s transitory records. We all produce them, in vast quantities, but it can be difficult to know exactly which records qualify as transitory records and when we can dispose of them. This post will provide a more in-depth look at transitory records and how you can identify them.
What is a “transitory record”?
The Society of American Archivists defines transitory records as “record[s] that [have] little or no documentary or evidential value and that need not be set aside for future use” (Pearce-Moses 2005). In other words, a transitory record is a record whose information is no longer useful to you and also holds no administrative, legal, fiscal, or historical value that would necessitate its longer-term retention. There are plenty of records that might no longer be useful to you but might be useful for audit, legal, evidential, or reporting purposes, and those would not be considered transitory records. On the flip side, there are other records that might be continuously useful to you but have no administrative, legal, fiscal, or historical value to your agency or to your constituents, and although those might be considered transitory, you are under no obligation to dispose of them. It’s where the two meet that you find your transitory records.
Some prime examples of transitory records include
- Information copies of correspondence, directives, forms, and other documents on which no administrative action is recorded or taken.
- Routing slips and transmittal sheets adding no information to that contained in the transmitted material.
- Requests for follow-up action, including voicemails and calendar invites.
- Tickler, follow up, or suspense copies of correspondence, provided they are extra copies of the originals.
- Duplicate copies of documents maintained in the same file.
- Extra copies of printed or processed materials for which complete record sets exist, such as current and superseded manuals maintained outside the office responsible for maintaining the record set.
- Catalogs, trade journals, and other publications that are received from other government agencies, commercial firms, or private institutions and that require no action and are not part of a case on which action is taken.
In addition, some working papers, notes, and forms are considered transitory because they are materials gathered or created to assist in the creation of another record; in cases where the resulting record becomes the official source of that information, the supporting materials may be considered redundant and therefore transitory.
Are transitory records public records?
Yes! Transitory records are public records. They are simply public records whose retention period is very short. Most transitory records, like copies of publications or reference copies of memos, directives, or statutes related to project documentation, reporting, or other activities; some working papers and drafts; routing slips; notes to self; some forms; and so on, do not have explicit line items in the schedule, but they are still “documents . . . or other documentary material . . . made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency” (NC GS § 121-2(8)). Their limited value and almost-immediate obsolescence negates the need for a specific retention period, but they are public records nonetheless.
Note that since transitory records are public records, they are subject to public inspection regardless of their limited informational value.
Are transitory records scheduled in the Functional Schedule for North Carolina State Agencies (2017)?
Since transitory records are part of the working papers associated with various functions, in most cases, they do not explicitly appear on the schedules. For instance, an external publication you have on your desk that is loosely associated with a project would be considered transitory because it was not created by your agency—if you decide tomorrow that it really isn’t relevant to your project, you don’t have to retain it as project documentation; you can destroy it immediately. Likewise, if you have duplicate copies of memos or other documents on your desk as reminders to do various tasks related to various functions, once you have completed those tasks, your reminder copies are obsolete and they can be destroyed immediately—they aren’t governed by the retention period associated with the task function. Informal task lists and routing confirmations related to various functions also fall into this category.
The functional schedules provide a definition and more examples of transitory records, which can be found in the glossary document accessible here: https://archives.ncdcr.gov/documents/functional-schedule-state-agencies. If you have questions about which records are considered transitory, please contact your records management analyst!
Note that SANC highly recommends that agencies further define dispositions for transitory records in an internal policy document so that all the offices, divisions, and units within an agency are working with the same interpretations of informational value and obsolete when handling destruction of transitory records (for more on defensible destruction, see our recent blog post here).
Are all forms transitory records?
No! Only some forms are transitory records. As the Functional Schedule for North Carolina State Agencies (2017) states,
Forms used solely to create, update, or modify records in an electronic medium may be destroyed in office after completion of data entry and after all verification and quality control procedures, as long as these records are not required for audit or legal purposes. However, if the forms contain any analog components that are necessary to validate the information contained on them (e.g., a signature or notary’s seal), they should be retained according to the disposition instructions for the records series encompassing the forms’ function. (SANC 2017; emphasis added)
So for instance, when we here in the Government Records Section plan a workshop, we disseminate a registration form that we ask all prospective attendees to fill out and return. We take the information from that form and add it to a master spreadsheet of attendees with their contact information. Once we have duplicated the information in our spreadsheet, the form still has some administrative value as a back-up record should our spreadsheet fail us; however, once the workshop is complete, the form is obsolete and can be destroyed.
Note that until the data entry from a form has been validated and/or the report based on the data from the form is final, forms should be maintained.
Whenever the information in a form is the basis for the provision or revocation of rights and obligations, and the form is the record copy of that information, the form has legal value and is not transitory; for instance, the judicial system of North Carolina operates using many different types of forms that are not merely for the creation of another record but constitute an important legal record in themselves. Whenever a form could be subject to audit, it has evidential or financial value until the completion of that audit; tax forms are a good example of forms that could be subject to audit and are not transitory records. And whenever a form is the sole repository for information vital to an agency function, it has lasting administrative value and is not transitory; for instance, some agencies use forms to document approved records destructions, and these forms are permanent records.
What about drafts of reports and other documents—are they transitory?
Often! Drafts and working papers are considered “materials gathered or created to assist in the creation of another record,” and thus many of them have “minimal value after the final version of the record [i.e., the final report or document] has been approved if they are no longer necessary to support the analysis or conclusions of the official record” (SANC 2017; emphasis added). Transitory drafts and working papers would include
- Drafts and working papers for internal administrative reports, such as daily and monthly activity reports;
- Drafts and working papers for internal, non-policy-level documents, such as informal workflows and manuals; and
- Drafts and working papers for presentations, workshops, and other explanations of agency policy that is already formally documented.
Note that while the final record is being created, drafts should be retained, and they are subject to inspection according to public records law. It is only after the final record is approved that a draft becomes obsolete.
It’s important to consider the historical significance of the final record in question when you are contemplating whether drafts and working papers are transitory. SANC emphasizes two key criteria for assessing historical value:
- Inherent interest is created by nonroutine events, by the involvement of famous parties, and by compelling contexts. For instance, foreclosure proceedings from the 1930s have high historical value because they date from the era of the Great Depression.
- Extraordinary documentation is found in records that shed light on political, public, or social history. For instance, the records from the replevin case that returned the Bill of Rights to North Carolina hold more historical value than most property case files because of the political history intertwined with this case. (SANC 2017)
In cases of inherent interest or extraordinary documentation, and particularly in cases where a report or document includes controversial findings or has the potential to affect the lives of North Carolinians statewide, drafts and working papers most likely would not be considered transitory and would be retained with the record copy of the final document. But this isn’t a determination you need to make alone! You should contact your records management analyst if you need help in appraising drafts and working papers.
Is a “donuts in the break room” e-mail a transitory record?
If you’re a state employee, no! Executive Order 12 (2013) governs the retention of all e-mail message sent and received by state employees in the executive branch, applying a blanket 5-year retention to everything. However, only the creator (i.e., the sender) of the “donuts in the break room” e-mail would be required to maintain the record for 5 years, per best practices for e-mail retention (see https://archives.ncdcr.gov/government/digital-records/digital-records-policies-and-guidelines#digital-communications (e-mail,-text-messaging,-etc.) for more information).
But if you remove the e-mail component and this becomes a “donuts in the break room” sticky note left on your desk, then yes! In the case of a “donuts in the break room” note, once the note has been distributed and the donuts have been devoured, the note itself would be obsolete, since it has no administrative, legal, fiscal, or historical value to you or your agency, and therefore it would be eligible for destruction.
Note that the difference between the e-mail and the sticky note here is a legal requirement that applies to e-mail but doesn’t apply to paper notes, and there may be other records that on first blush seem to be transitory but have some statutory or regulatory retention requirement attached. When in doubt, call your records management analyst!
Do I need to include transitory records in my records destruction log?
As long as you’ve set internal agency policies governing retention and destruction of transitory records, no! See our recent blog post on records destruction logs and defensible destruction for more information.
What should I do if I’m not sure whether a record is transitory?
We would be happy to assist you in determining which of your records are transitory, so please contact us! You can find a list of records management analysts at the bottom of this webpage: https://archives.ncdcr.gov/government/records-management-services-and-training. You can also reach us at our main number: 919-807-7350; or you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pearce-Moses, Richard. 2005. A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, s.v. “transitory record.” Chicago: Society of American Archivists. https://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/t/transitory-record.
SANC (State Archives of North Carolina). 2017. Functional Schedule for North Carolina State Agencies. https://archives.ncdcr.gov/government/retention-schedules/state-agency-schedules/functional-schedule-north-carolina-state.