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Paper Crazy No More: Records Management for Library Chaos Junkies
by: Guy Robertson
Are you a chaos junkie?
Are you addicted to the confusion, inefficiency and waste arising from the lack of good records management (RM) in your library? If so, countless librarians share your shame. Like you, they feel guilty about their cravings for disorganized paper and mislabelled file folders. They refuse to acknowledge the depth of their dependence, even when their therapists confront them with the truth. Early in their careers, however, these unhappy individuals dedicated themselves to the highest standards of information control. They built outstanding collections and served their users with pride. But now they skulk in storage rooms, inhaling the dust from ancient document boxes. Or they loiter in Tech Services areas, their eyes bloodshot from reading the fine print on obsolete forms. Or they sit in the director's office and fantasize about data loss.
Are you one of these librarians? Take courage. There's hope for you and your codependent colleagues. By dealing with your addiction to sloppy record-keeping, you can restore your self-esteem and rescue your workplace from disorder.
What follows is a eight-step program for chaos junkies. If you adhere to this program, you will manage your library's records in a clean and sober fashion that will impress the most demanding addiction counsellor.
* Step One: Getting past denial
Face it: the records system in your library is a mess. Your administrators' offices are stuffed with three-ring binders, which are stuffed with...what? Budget figures from 1983, complete with memos from the former director concerning cutbacks in...what? See appendix four. Where is appendix four? In another three-ring binder labelled "Misc" and hidden in the office of the ex-husband of the children's librarian. The ex-husband is a loans officer at a bank in Winnipeg. Why does he have appendix four? Because he too is addicted to bad RM, and needs as much useless bumf around him as he can find. In the chaos junkie's argot, he's "cramming", or filling his workplace with piles of unnecessary paper. He picked up the habit from his ex-wife, who crams her office with unproduceable puppet-show scripts, lists of illustrated books for Icelandic-speaking pre-teens, publishers' newsletters containing reviews of the Newberry winner for 1963, Dewey-era organization charts, and hard copies of every e-mail that she ever received.
More bad news. The children's librarian has organized her records more effectively than most of her colleagues. Canadian law prohibits (or should prohibit) the detailed description of her director's office, which contains even more unnecessary paper. From the top down, this library is addicted to chaos. Not surprisingly, electronic information systems have exacerbated the problem. Hard drives are crammed with e-trash, and librarians strive to label their computer files as ambiguously as possible.
Dealing with chaos requires gumption and honesty. Of course you and your colleagues are comfortable with your current ways of handling--or not handling-- records. It's hog heaven. But you know that it's unproductive, and that you must change. Go and look in the mirror: it's behind that heap of three-ring binders labelled "New" and "Old" and "Ugh". Look at yourself. Don't you deserve more in life? Isn't it time to reclaim your integrity as a information professional? The decision is yours. Once you've made it, the real struggle begins.
* Step Two: Assigning RM responsibilities
Who will be your library's records manager? The qualifications are few and simple. First, the candidate must have the personal skills to deal with a group of high-functioning chaos junkies adept at procrastination. Second, he or she must have the will power of a tank commander and the patience of a saint. Third, he or she must be familiar with the alphabet. Finally, he or she must either have RM training, or be prepared to read sundry textbooks and manuals on the topic.
Should your records manager be a librarian, a library technician, or a clerical assistant? In fact, the candidate's position in your hierarchy is irrelevant. As long as he or she has the right qualifications, the position is in competent hands.
Remember that your records manager will be obliged to sort out your current chaos addiction problems before implementing an RM maintenance program. The process of sorting out the initial mess might take months; the maintenance program will be permanent. Be prepared to appoint your records manager to a career-length job.
* Step Three: Compiling the records inventoryThe records manager's first task will be to compile an inventory of all library records, in all media. Usually this is the most time-consuming step, without which your library will not have effective RM. Referring to an up-to-date organization chart, the records manager will list the records in every department and significant work unit. Usually records exist in series, i.e. groups of documents related to the same topic, purpose or function. For example, your director's office contains (or should contain) full sets of the Library Board Minutes, Budget Committee Minutes, and Executive Committee Minutes. The human resources manager's office should keep an up-to-date series of performance review files. The accounting department will be in charge of all payroll records. These are active, vital series. Your records manager will classify other series as semi-active or inactive, archival, and non-vital.
During the inventorying process, the records manager will note the various media in which various series exist: paper, microfilm, electronic. The inventory will include notes regarding the size of particular series ("6 metres of Board Minutes") and the dates ("Library Automation Project Reports, from the reign of Augustus Caesar to the present").
So far the inventorying process sounds straightforward, but in the world of the chaos junkie, nothing can be simple. The records manager will quickly discover that vital records are missing, or in poor condition, or incomplete. Labels will be incorrect; some files will be undateable. Alphabetically-ordered files will be out of their proper order. Systems documentation will appear in stairwells, cafeterias, and boxes marked "Christmas Ornaments for Branches".
Increasingly threatened by new RM procedures, chaos junkies will act in character. Fearing the records manager's reputation for shredding, tossing out, or otherwise ridding the library of useless paper and data, the junkies will hide those items that he or she cannot bear to be without. Precious garbage finds its way into crawl spaces and lockers and attic cubby-holes. Worthless data are transferred onto secret, unlabelled floppies. If the records manager asks why such stuff is retained, the answer is curt and non-committal. "Don't worry about that. We may need it at some point." When? The chaos junkie can't say.
* Step Four: Retention scheduling
When the records inventory is complete, the records manager assigns each series or item a retention period, or length of time that the library will keep it. Some series are permanent. For example, board minutes should be retained in perpetuity. Older board minutes (e.g. over ten years old) can be transferred to the library's archives; the director can keep a more current set in her office. Other records to be held in perpetuity are building plans, files concerning significant donors, and any important contracts with vendors or other library systems.
Some records must be retained for periods specified by legislation. Many accounting records must be available to the library's auditor for up to seven years after they have been created. Fortunately most records have a shorter life cycle. Those correspondence files that you've hoarded for years could have been safely shredded ages ago; you needn't have kept them for more than two years. Those newsletters from various retailers could have landed in the recycling bin shortly after you received them. And most of those promotional brochures and catalogues from systems vendors could have been trashed immediately.
A comprehensive records retention schedule will allow your library to avoid build-ups of non-essential records. Naturally, chaos junkies will attempt to wreck the schedule through devious ploys. For the purest rubbish, they will recommend retention periods that extend into the distant future. The more useless the material, the longer it must be kept in order to satisfy the junkie, who hints darkly at the horrible things that might happen to the library and the records manager if that material should be destroyed. If a retention period is not long enough for a chaos junkie--and 300 years is barely acceptable-- he or she will simply ignore it. The chaos junkie's ability to ignore a retention schedule or any other simple set of RM procedures is extraordinary. Constant vigilance is necessary to force the recovering chaos junkie from backsliding.
* Step Five: Establishing confidentiality levels and organizing document destruction
A review of the records inventory and retention schedules will indicate those records that can be discarded immediately. In the early days of a RM project, there will come to light a plethora of records that will inundate the dumpster.
But efficient document destruction involves more than simple disposal. The confidentiality of sensitive records must be respected. Human resource files, vendor proposals, and documentation regarding controversial issues should not be made available for public access. Such records should be shredded as soon as they are no longer necessary.
Since chaos junkies thrive on doubt and confusion, they will be overjoyed to discover any grey areas that exist in their library's confidentiality policy and procedures. Is this file confidential? Maybe, maybe not. Better keep it, in case it's important. But don't label it. That would give away the secret. And file it in a place where nobody will find it...In every corner and cranny, useless paper accumulates.
The records manager is wise to establish a confidentiality classification scheme that affords the right level of protection for all of the library's records. The most sensitive materials can be considered "classified", for the consideration of the board, director, and others at the board's discretion. Less sensitive materials that can be distributed to library staff can be dubbed "confidential", i.e. not for public access. "Private" materials relate to specific individuals, who must give their permission before any paper or data of a personal nature can be disseminated without restriction. "Public" materials require no special confidentiality measures and can be disseminated freely.
The more sensitive the material, the more stringent the destruction process. Some institutions employ paper and media destruction firms to do the job, and to make arrangements for any necessary recycling. Usually the records manager signs off any order for destruction and keeps a record of what has been destroyed and by whom.
* Step Six: Preventing data loss
Addiction involves heavy fantasizing and endless pipe dreams. In the back of every chaos junkie's mind is the server crash that wipes out the electronic catalogue, or the glitch that causes borrowers' records to vanish without hope of recovery. To the junkie, the thought of such disasters is both terrifying and wonderful. What a rush! No back-up, complete chaos... and not even the old card catalogue or manual system in place to save the day.
Backing up essential data is common sense. It is also inexpensive, simple, and easy to plan. Carried out regularly, it reduces the library's exposure to most forms of data loss. If your library fails to back up its data, losses are almost certain to occur at some point.
Every day in large North American library systems, substantial losses of data occur. No back-ups are available. Library operations are seriously disrupted, and the cost of replacing or reconstructing the lost data soars. The board demands an explanation. Library managers and staff deny any responsibility, and the chaos junkies exult. The sun also rises.
* Step Seven: Developing the library archives
Among a library's permanent records, there are items that contain evidence for its unique history and corporate culture. These are archives, and worth careful conservation. Essentially anti-historical, the chaos junkie works against the establishment of the archives. In fact, the library's archives are the only items that the junkie is eager to shred or dumpsterize. Building plans, photographs, newsletters, posters, and all other glorious librariana will quickly disappear if they fall into the junkie's hands.
The records manager should attempt to save the library's archives through proper labelling and storage of archival files. Access to the archives should be limited so that further wear and tear can be avoided. The records manager should make sure that the archives are kept away as much as possible from heat, light, dust, sticky tape, staples, rusty paper clips, small children, and chaos junkies.
The library's archives can be used for marketing and promotional purposes. Those old photos and brochures are especially useful when users and politicians need to be reminded about the popularity of the library over the years. In fiscally challenging times, archival materials can be used to defend the library against demands for cut-backs. No matter what the junkie may say, the library needs its archives.
* Step Eight: Sustaining the RM process
RM must become standard operating procedure if it is to be sustained in any institution. Many RM programs have started well and survived for a few years after which they are forgotten, ignored, or otherwise discontinued. The records manager can ensure that RM becomes a permanent feature by effective internal promotion and orientation for all staff. It is essential to let all library managers and staff know about the RM project if it is to be a success. The library newsletter is a first-class vehicle for brief articles about various aspects of the project, and for handy RM tips. RM manuals should be clear, concise, and distributed to every work unit and branch of the library. The records manager should be available to answer any questions and to assist in the organization of records and the appraisal of archives.
Ideally RM procedures will lose their novelty and become common practice throughout your library. The life cycle of your paper and data will be determined on the basis of actual need and use, and files that are no longer necessary will be safely destroyed. Confidentiality of sensitive records will be guaranteed. Vital data will be automatically backed up. Since RM programs require months for full implementation, the chaos junkie will not have to quit bad habits cold turkey. Soon, however, he or she must go straight, and be paper crazy no more.
Sources: the author's choice
While there are many RM textbooks, the most useful for the purposes of a library records manager are:
Couture, Carol, and Rousseau, Jean-Yves. The life of a document: a global approach to archives and records management. Translated by David Homel. Montreal. Vehicule Press. 1987.
Schwartz, Candy, and Hernon, Peter. Records management and the library: issues and practices. Norwood, NJ. Ablex Publishing Corporation. 1993.
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