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Scientific Association Records Programs: A Beginner's Guide

How to Set Up a Records Program

Functional Analysis

The goals of a records program are to document your organization for conducting its business more efficiently and to preserve its heritage for myriad historical purposes, ranging from analysis and planning to celebration. To be useful and complete, the records program is grounded in what modern archivists and records management call a functional analysis of your organization--What does your association do?

Archival functional analysis grew as a theoretical concept from the minds of many thinkers, including Helen Samuels (archivist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Samuels has also published the best known application of it in Varsity Letters: Documenting Modern Colleges and Universities (1992). Because Samuels specializes in science archives and because MIT is a science-oriented university, Varsity Letters offers many lessons for scientific associations. A glance at Samuels' list of general university functions shows that scientific societies share many of them:

Samuels stresses that the mix of these functions varies from school to school, and that an activity such as athletics may belong to one function at school 'x' and another at school 'y.' To be a useful basis for collecting and appraising records, functional analysis must be conducted at each institution. She also encourages archivists and records managers in workplaces other than academia to do a general functional analysis like hers for the entire setting, and then tailor it to their specific institution.

Below is a first attempt at a functions list for scientific societies. Some of the terms are borrowed from Samuels, but the activities under them are different from universities. Your association may do some of these but not others, and your group may add functions not on the list.

To tailor a functional analysis for your own society, study the mission statement, constitution and bylaws, organizational chart, annual reports, histories, minutes of the executive body (Board and Council). Examine its products. Think about what its officers do. The resulting document will be a first draft. As your association evolves, and you learn more about it through observation and study of its records, the functional analysis will change, especially the emphasis within categories.

Records Survey

A survey of active and non-current records, kept in all media, follows functional analysis and precedes appraisal and disposition. It will tell the association what is well documented, what is documented in duplicate or in too much detail, and what is under-recorded. The survey will help suggest economical storage of inactive records needed for research purposes or retained because of state and federal regulations. Active files will be improved by eliminating duplication and clutter, and less file space will be needed.

To keep the survey manageable in terms of time and resources, sketch out a plan for it before beginning the project. The plan might state the goals of the survey, outline the method (questionnaire filled out by the departments? Interviews by you or a records consultant? Telephone follow-up or not?), list what data are to be collected, include a draft of the survey form and a list to remind you of all the locations where you must search for records, schedule actions on a timetable, budget costs, and suggest how the results might be disseminated.

Experienced records surveyors warn against trying to accomplish everything with one survey. The data collected should be directly related to the goals of the project, which in this case are appraising records and deciding which should be kept in what medium and location for how long. Too ambitious a survey leads to long questionnaires that neither you nor your allies in the offices will have the time or patience to complete. The ideal survey form is one page, with clear, short questions and lots of space for answers and comments (Fig. 1). Test a draft form in a small office that is supportive of the idea of a records program before you start using the questionnaire throughout the organization. If possible, design your form and computer data entry screen with the same layout.

If someone else, especially people in the department owning the records, is going to fill out the form for you, avoid archival jargon or give examples where you must use it. Use departmental accounting codes if you want to number things.

Records manuals provide samples of survey forms. Your form will reflect your goals and organization, but should include the following minimum items (Fig. 1):

Current operations

Research value for planning, forecasting, history

Inventory Work Sheet

Date Number

Record Series Administrative Unit

Dates Restrictions

Volume Source of Material

Number and Size of Files, Drawers, or Documents Office Location (Building, Room No.)

Person Completing Survey Form Contact person

Description (Title, types of material, nature and dates of responsibilities creating office or officer, subjects covered, duplication, missing or purged material)

Arrangement

Index, Finding Aids or File Guides

Figure 1: Original inventory work sheet used at AAAS, based on a similar form used by the Smithsonian Archives.

The concept of records series needs a few words. Obviously you cannot complete a form on every document or every file folder, and a form that includes all the records on a department on one page is too aggregated. Records series are those files that are related to each other by the way they are created or used. If you are doing your first survey and need some experience with the series concept, ask an experienced archivist or records manager to review a few of the first forms you fill in. It also helps to read a few published guides to archives holdings to see what constitutes records series and titles (see, for example, the Guide to the Smithsonian Archives (1978, 1983)). There is some variation from institution to institution on assigning record series titles, as evidenced in a general compilation such as Andrea Hinding, ed., Women's History Sources (1979) which reports on collections all over the United States. You should be consistent on record series titles within your survey in order to spot duplicate sets of records in different departments and to create uniform retention schedules for similar records throughout the association.

Craft a letter about the survey and the records program. It should explain why the association is undertaking this effort and what the departments can expect to gain from it. The letter should outline your method and acquaint staff and officers with the personnel who are doing the survey. In the letter to department heads, ask who from their unit can work with you as a partner on records in their office or department. Discuss the project with this person face to face if possible; this is someone who can be a long-term ally of records management there. Mention their names in subsequent letters to staff and reports on the project.

Scientific associations are small enough that you should be able to examine records yourself with the help of your department ally. Mailed questionnaires usually get a low response rate and are error prone, but they may have to be used for distant sites such as regional division records. Telephone follow-up is advisable for gaps, errors, and non-respondents. Depending on the corporate style, make appointments to examine records or drop in when you know the department is at peace (do not survey accounting records at the close of your fiscal year or of any office just before an annual meeting.)

Look for records everywhere--in closets, file cabinets, bookcases, desktops, credenzas, basements, attics, parking areas, tops of furniture, under furniture, in supply and specimen cabinets (in museum collections, curators occasionally file collection-related documents, such as field notes, with specimens). Be alert for all media--letters, memos, contracts, receipts, notes, drafts, blueprints, minutes and agenda, filled in forms, printouts, reports, computer tapes, audiotapes, videos and films, disks, photos, index cards. Draw floor plans and mark where records are located. Be respectful of private materials kept in desk drawers. Label unmarked file cabinets as you go. Carry a survey kit consisting of paper, scissors, clipboard, forms, scotch tape, tape measure, bandaids, flashlight, felt-tip markers, post-its, hand soap, hand lotion, gloves, and, just in case, aspirin. A notebook computer will allow you to enter data on the spot rather than copying them later from forms, but even these small computers cannot be used everywhere. Back up your data files frequently if you do use a computer notebook (always carry a spare floppy disk for this purpose). Survey the records in departments first because it will give you a better idea of the universe of records generated by the association, and then survey storage areas where inactive records are kept.

Provide progress reports on the survey to the association as you go along, in the association newsletter or e-mail bulletin board. Each department should receive draft and final copies of the survey of its records, including what you find in storage. You may decide to distribute a summary list more widely than just in-house; AAAS did this after its first record survey ten years ago, and found that other science archivists were as equally interested in it as historians of science.

Appraisal

Appraisal in everyday parlance means 'assess for monetary value.' Sometimes records are indeed evaluated for their market value, but this is rare and usually done where personal papers are being donated rather than organizational records assessed. In archives and records management, "appraisal" means judging what records should be saved (and for how long) and which can be discarded (and when).

In deciding what records to keep and destroy, a scientific association has some minimum obligations imposed by regulation and law, but these often cover documents least useful in telling about your organization. The surest touchstone is the functional analysis of your group. The goal of appraisal is to preserve records that document what your organization does. The value of the records arises in part from uses to which the association puts them in everyday operations and in part from the scientific world of which it is a part. Archivists and records managers recommend establishing retention periods records needed for the operations of the group--including documenting its past activities in the context of science generally and saving material that has long term research value--and then lengthening the retention period, if necessary, to comply with the law.

In comparing the records survey against the functional analysis of your association, you will find that some activities are scantily documented and others are recorded in many different series. Over the years, archivists have developed criteria for choosing among series that compete for valuable space. The Smithsonian Archives, a major history center for American science, bases its appraisals on the history of the office and its records in the context of the importance to the Smithsonian and the scientific community of which it is part. It uses the following criteria from the archival and records management literature to assess the institution's own records:

Creating and Activating Records Retention Schedules

Schedules are tables or outlines that briefly describe records created by association offices, specify how long they should be kept there, and set a date for discard, for transfer to storage (with a later date for discard from storage), or for sending to archives. The date that triggers action may be so many years after the record was created, or it may be so many years after an event, such as an audit. Schedules may be generated in a database or word processing software, depending on how complicated the records picture is in your association and how often you expect to revise them. A database takes longer to set up than a text file, but can generate more kinds of reports for you and is easier to sort. A text file accommodates comments more easily.

The minimum retention period for some records is determined by regulation (especially if you do business with the government, such as receiving federal grants), statutes of limitation that give a time limit during which you can sue or be sued, tax audit requirements, and other guidelines and rules. For this reason, some records management handbooks suggest you ask your association lawyer to work closely with you on drawing up schedules. It is more practical to consult a good guidebook on records retention, such as that by Skupsky, and present the draft schedules for your lawyer to review for local and state quirks or for circumstances peculiar to your organization. The accounting firm that audits your association's financial records should also review the draft schedules for records kept by the finance office. External review by archivists or records managers at nearby institutions or other scientific societies may also be helpful.

Internal review moves up the chain of organization. First to check the schedules should be the people you worked with on the records survey, then the heads of the offices or elected officers, and finally the chief executive officer. It is advisable to obtain written agreement to the schedules, but if someone below the top level is a chronic procrastinator, you can try telling them that the schedule goes into effect in x weeks unless you hear from them.

The hardest part of implementation of a records program is accustoming offices to discarding or transferring records according to the schedule. Penn et al. have observed that records get transferred and destroyed all too often not by the schedule, but when offices run out of space. If offices do not follow the schedule and association records are needed in a court battle, your records management program may be challenged as a paper tiger, as it were, and opposition counsel may subpoena material from records that should have been long gone. Offices need to be persuaded that keeping records "just in case" can be more harmful in lawsuits than disposing of them on an approved and regular basis for business reasons. Sometimes economic arguments are persuasive: Robek et al. report that records kept offsite instead of in busy offices can cost fifty times less to store. Diamond advises setting specific days during the year for file clean out following the guidelines of the retention schedule. Skupsky suggests coercion in a humorous aside--by conspiring with the purchasing office, you can delay buying more file cabinets until inactive files are transferred or destroyed according to the schedules.

Written documentation must be kept of records that are destroyed. This will save historical researchers from hunting in vain, and will be useful in handling subpoenas on extinct records. When the records program is started, associations find themselves ready to discard large numbers of records discovered to have no legal, operation, or historical value whatsoever. Skupsky notes that judges are apt to be skeptical of one time destructions, and suggests that records that would be discarded under scheduling be handled that way rather than as one shot efforts whenever possible. For the remainder, you should retain information from the survey, decision-making, and approval processes that justify their disposition.

Publicizing the records retention program is usually done by distributing the schedules with instructions on how to use them. You may want to include summary guidance on how to set up good files with the schedules; ARMA publishes superb manuals on this, and a set can be placed in the association library. The handouts should also include instructions on how to transfer records to storage or the archives (see appendix D of this report). Circulating a copy of the schedules and procedures to current staff or officers is not enough to insure action. Be prepared to visit or call offices to make sure they are following the timetable. Try to get the guidelines and instructions into the association handbook, personnel manual, or procedures book. When new staff or officers start their work, send them a welcome with the records schedules and procedures attached. If your association runs training seminars, offer to conduct one on filing and records management.

Retention schedules are subject to change. Compliance will be better if they are kept up to date. Eliminate record series that are no longer kept, and add sections on new ones. Review retention periods with those who use the records--are they too long (the records aren't being consulted) or too short (someone went looking for something that had been discarded?). Records managers recommend a thorough review and revision every three years or so.

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