The Queensland State Archives publishes a newsletter called QSA Client News (QCN) that is full of excellent articles and advice. In the December 2017 edition of QCN was an article entitled “Day Batching…the ‘Rules of Racing’” in which the Queensland State Archives gave a recap of its advice about day batching original paper records after digitisation (“QCN,” 2017). Summed up, this advice goes something along the lines of structured files reflect best practice in records management, batching by retention year has it problems but is better than day batching, which should be avoided at all costs.
The advice was first published back in 2005 and may have been excellent advice at the time. However, I’d like to provide a different point of view. This point of view may give you something to think about next time you are walking through the file room, placing the day’s correspondence into structured files or manually appraising hard copy to determine which retention year box you need to place it in. You see, I think day batching hard copy records is a better method and this article discusses why.
Most of the organisations I’ve worked with either maintain structured paper files, use retention year boxes or deploy a combination of both, so I won’t be surprised if this article is not immediately accepted. In fact, the mere suggestion that these practices be abandoned and replaced by day batching will cause so much angst in some people that they may stop reading this article immediately. It is not a comfortable prospect to consider changing one’s mind about something believed in for so long. After all, change is hard for even the most adaptable. Asking committed advocates of a process to change from doing something that has been ingrained into their recordkeeping practices must seem ludicrous. Particularly if our archival authorities have opposed the practice.
To be sure we are talking about the same thing I’ll provide you with my definitions of the three approaches to hard copy storage.
Structured files are paper files that represent a record series maintained in a Business Classification Scheme (BCS). For each container in the BCS that stores the electronic version of records, there is a physical container that stores any corresponding physical records.
Batching by Retention period involves grouping physical records into boxes by retention period. For example all the records that have a retention of two years are placed together into a box that is presumed to able to be destroyed after two years. Permanent records are placed together into a box that is to be kept forever.
Day batching means to some that physical records are placed into a box according to the date scanned or received, but really grouping records together by the date scanned has no value and is a misnomer. Day batching is really just placing physical records into the next box that is being used that day, regardless of the scanned or received dates of the records in the box.
Retention period Boxing
I think that boxing by retention period has no merit, so I’ll discuss this approach first with the intent of removing it from contention. Amongst the problems with retention period boxing is that when the retention period for a record class changes, each hard copy record in the class must be moved to a box that represents the new retention period and disposal date for the record. Some would argue that if the retention period decreases there is no requirement to move the record because it is acceptable to keep records longer than the minimum retention period. This is true, however day batching is more efficient because the retention period automatically readjusts for the record with no requirement for manual intervention. This is because your eDRMS should determine the retention period based on the disposal authority applied to a class of record and not the box a record was placed in.
In September 2016, Queensland State Archives released the General retention and disposal schedule (GRDS), which replaced Queensland Disposal Authority Number (QDAN) 249 version 7 – General Retention and Disposal Schedule for Administrative Records. The GRDS is an authorisation under s.26 of the Public Records Act 2002 for the disposal of common and administrative public records created by all Queensland Government agencies. I commend Queensland State Archives for the work that went into the GRDS. It simplified the process of appraising records against the schedule and provided for the coverage of a vast number of record classes not previously covered by approved disposal schedules.
QSA provided excellent documentation to help agencies map the previous disposal authorities from QDAN 249 to the GRDS (Queensland State Archives, 2017a). The organisations I work with were able to apply the changes to their recordkeeping systems within days. If your eDRMS doesn’t allow for a simple process to update disposal authorities then you should consider changing products. By simple, I don’t mean automated, I mean easy. It was still a manual process, but not a complicated one. From the documentation supplied by QSA, I extracted the data in the following table.
|Retention Period QDAN 249 v7 in Years||Retention Period GRDS in Years||Record Classes Changed|
What the table tells us is that retention period boxes for the period in the first column of the table, should be checked to see if they contain records from classes that have had the retention period increased to the period in the second column. If so, the records should be moved to a box designated for the new retention period that is due for destruction at the appropriate time. The third column lists the number of record classes in the GRDS that had a change from retention periods from the first column to those in the second column.
I’ve seen agencies that don’t know which individual records are in each box. All they know is that at the time they were boxed, the retention period for each record in the box was the same. These agencies have at some time in the past been advised that at the end of the retention period the box can be destroyed without reappraising any of the records to make sure they have not been misclassified or that their retention periods have not changed. There is also a disassociation between the digitised copies of these records in the eDRMS and the original source hard copy. These agencies have been led to believe that it is acceptable to destroy hard copy records without destroying the digitised copies. After all, doesn’t everyone know that digital storage is cheap, and there’s no harm in keeping everything forever, right? If your agency is like this, then when you come to destroy a box you will have to reappraise every individual record in the box to make sure it is able to be legally destroyed under a current disposal authority. There goes all the efficiencies that were hoped to be gained by retention year boxing.
Disposing of records according to the retention period box they are in also results in the partial disposal of files. If a file is open over a number of years, then it is likely that records belonging to the file are placed in different retention year boxes that are closed on different dates and will be disposed of in different years. It is not good recordkeeping practice to dispose of a part of a file (Queensland State Archives, 2017b). A partial file is at best clutter as it becomes useless without the rest of its information. At worst it can be misleading providing the organisation with misinformation.
Potentially, the data in the table above could be used to adjust the disposal dates for each box. For example, if you have a one or a two year box, you could change it to a seven year box. The biggest problem with this solution is that besides having to store hardcopy for years longer than necessary, there were ten record classes that had their status changed from temporary to permanent. If you keep five, seven or ten year retention boxes then you would have to keep them all forever and never be able to transfer them to an archival authority because archival authorities want structured files, not boxes full of disparate records (Queensland State Archives, 2017c).
Retention triggers cause havoc when boxing by retention period. The premise behind retention period boxing seems to be that the retention period count down is from when last document is placed in the box and the box lid is sealed. For all intents and purposes, the disposal trigger is assumed to be the registration or creation of the record. When I worked through the GRDS to extract the data presented in this article, I found only one record class that had a disposal trigger of creation and it had a retention period of 90 days. The reality is that many record classes that have the same retention periods have different disposal triggers, so will fall due for disposition at different times, possibly years apart.
Maintaining structured files for hard copy is very convenient. As soon as the file is required it can be retrieved in its entirety. The question is whether the convenience gained from maintaining a structured file is worth the overhead. Why do people need to hold a physical file in their hands? Surely users can print off a record if they want to hold it physically. Stamp it as a copy and shred it when finished. On the rare occasion when evidence is required that can only be substantiated by the original source hard copy, then sure, retrieve it. But only the individual document needs to be retrieved. The remainder of the structured file should remain stored safely behind locked doors in a compliant records storage facility.
When sending records to archival authorities or to offsite secondary storage, it is a requirement to have the hard copy records in structured paper files. But it is worth questioning when the best time to create the structured files is. There are three examples of the status of permanent record classes being changed to temporary in the GRDS. Admittedly these are records that were required to be permanently retained at the organisation, but they may have been destined to be sent to offsite secondary storage and therefore it seemed practical to store them as structured files at the time of capture. Now that they are temporary and can be destroyed, the effort to maintain them as structured files seems wasted. Not a strong example I grant you, but this does illustrate the possibility of permanent files having their status changed. The best time to create structured files is immediately before you need the structured file. If records can be legally destroyed before ever needing to be placed in structured files, why should we bother going to the effort of doing so. Pick them straight from their boxes and shred them. A shredder does not care if records have been neatly arranged according to their record class.
An issue with giving staff the physical file is that staff tend to place additional records on the file without telling anyone. These records are not discoverable unless someone decides to peruse the physical paper file. These records should be scanned and recorded in the eDRMS so they can become text searchable documents with additional metadata added. How else is the rest of the organisation going to know they exist? Ask your organisation’s Freedom Of Information (FOI) or Right To Information (RTI) officers how they would like to have to physically check each physical file instead of the scanned records in the eDRMS.
Most of the files maintained in the organisations I work with are hybrids. They consist of hard copy records that have been digitised and records that are born digital so have no hard copy component. If someone is given a physical file, it will probably be only part of the file unless someone is going to the effort of printing digitally born records and placing them in the paper file. If your organisation does this, please stop. The idea of having an eDRMS is so we can manage our records electronically. Too many organisations are not using their technology to make recordkeeping easier. A lot of organisations have implemented an electronic system to record after the fact, what they have been doing manually with their physical records. These organisations have failed with their eDRMS implementation. They have continued with their legacy recordkeeping processes and have only succeeded in creating additional tasks by having to record the outcome of their manual processes in their impressive and expensive eDRMS.
Another problem with maintaining structured files is that if records are misclassified, then they must be retrieved from the incorrect file and physically placed in the correct file. You may claim that records at your organisation are never misclassified but at the organisations I work with, we perform quarterly spot check audits on the BCS and every audit conducted turns up at least one record that has ended up in the wrong place. It’s called human error and should be expected. Misclassification is easy to rectify if your systems are based on electronic structures and not based on physical structures such as paper files.
Day batching is the quickest method for storing hard copy records. The process involves placing a record in a box and recording the box’s unique identifier against the record in your eDRMS. It is simple to retrieve the record when on the rare occasion staff require to hold the hard copy in their hands. When the record is returned, it is simply placed back into the current box being used to store hard copy records after digitisation.
Some organisations argue that they day batch, but only for records that have the same disposal authority and trigger. For example, they may day batch all the finance records together. This isn’t really day batching. It equates better to maintaining structured files. Just because the container is a box instead of a paper file doesn’t mean the records are being day batched.
The main criticism for day batching is that it is an inefficient use of storage space. This probably stems from the idea that either the whole box must be retained for the longest retention period of any record in the box or that the box ends up being partially empty until the last record is removed from the box for disposal. I think the disposal methodology rather than a day batching methodology is responsible for this inefficiency. When a day box is partially empty, we just process more records into it until it is full again. Waiting until every record in the box is due for disposal before disposing of the records or not reusing the space in a box as it empties seems to be the cause of the inefficiency.
Which Approach is More Efficient
I did a statistical analysis of a Queensland agency’s eDRMS to determine whether it was more efficient to place hard copy records into structured files at the time of capture or to retrieve them from day boxes at the time of disposal. I made two assumptions when producing the statistics to ensure I wasn’t giving a perceived unfair advantage to day batching. The first assumption made is that hard copy would be placed into structured files at the end of the day’s processing so that when multiple documents are meant for the same file it would only be retrieved once for the day. The other assumption is that at disposal time, each record series would be processed individually so that economies of scale gained by disposing of multiple record series at the same time would be ignored.
The following table sums up my findings.
|File Plan||Total Record Series||Structured File puts||Box gets||% more Efficient|
Of the 4138 record series in the BCS, only 52 would have been more efficiently maintained as structured files. An overwhelming 4086 record series in the BCS were more efficiently maintained by day batching.
The Structured File Puts column is the number of times someone had to locate a structured file to place records in it at capture. The Box Gets column is the number of time someone had to locate a box to retrieve records for disposal. The BCS file plan is based on functions and activities. The other file plans were legacy file plans no longer used for capture and are subject based.
Day batching was 25% more efficient than using structured files for records classified in the BCS. Using structured files was an overwhelming 73% more efficient than day boxing for the other file plans. These are legacy file plans that date back to when emails were printed and stored in boxes as original records even though they had been digitally born. This may be evidence that in the past, when paper based recordkeeping systems were the only option, structured files were the best way to go. Now with the advent of the eDRMS, I believe it is time to consider day batching as a more efficient method of storage.
The subject files in the legacy file plans analysed contained disparate records covered by multiple disposal authorities and have their own inherent disposal challenges regardless of whether or not the hard copy was stored in structured files. There was also far fewer record series in the other file plans as compared to the BCS and when all file plans are combined, day batching was still 8% more efficient overall.
In this article I have tried to demonstrate that day batching is an effective and efficient method for storing hard copy records. Any criticisms of day batching most likely stem from eras when manual, paper based systems were the only solution to effectively managing records. What may have been a valid augment for alternative approaches no longer holds true in an age where electronic solutions to recordkeeping make the task of controlling our records so much easier.
Maintaining structured files provides for a convenient way to retrieve entire record series. There is nothing wrong with choosing to maintain structured files, but the decision to do so should be informed with balancing the few benefits against the increased overhead incurred.
Retention year boxing is an approach to storage that cannot possibly deliver on what it promises. In effect, provided the box that a hard copy record is stored in is known, retention year boxing is the same as day boxing, only with the useless extra burden of determining the disposal date of a record by assuming the trigger for its retention period was when the box will be closed.
If your organisation is maintaining structured files or retention year boxes, it might be worthwhile reviewing your recordkeeping systems and technology. A well configured eDRMS combined with thoughtfully designed procedures and processes results in far less effort to achieve far better outcomes. An eDRMS should not be a ledger that is maintained to reflect the manual efforts of your recordkeeping. It should be the powerhouse that takes away the lions share off the effort to control your records.
- QCN. (2017, November 16). Retrieved February 23, 2018, from https://grkblog.archives.qld.gov.au/qcn/
- Queensland State Archives, I. T. and I. (2017a, January 12). General Retention and Disposal Schedule (GRDS) [Text]. Retrieved February 23, 2018, from https://www.forgov.qld.gov.au/schedules/general-retention-and-disposal-schedule-grds
- Queensland State Archives, I. T. and I. (2017b, January 23). Use a retention and disposal schedule [Text]. Retrieved February 23, 2018, from https://www.forgov.qld.gov.au/use-retention-and-disposal-schedule
- Queensland State Archives, I. T. and I. (2017c, January 31). Transfer records to QSA [Text]. Retrieved February 23, 2018, from https://www.forgov.qld.gov.au/transfer-records-qsa