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Starting a Program
What are records?
Your records show how you conduct business, make decisions, and carry out your work. Records may be paper, electronic, photographic, or any other format. They are evidence of decisions and actions; they can be used in court to defend and to prosecute. Historical records are those records that have permanent value for historical and other research. These records have continuing legal or financial value, or document a significant person, event, or decision. Because historical records have permanent value, they require special attention to ensure their preservation and continued use.
It's always good to have one person, an archivist, records manager, or someone else who appreciates the value of records, who will take the lead in providing consistent care for records, working with researchers and other organizations, and seeking sources of funding. All local governments and state agencies are required by law to have a Records Management Officer (RMO) to coordinate a comprehensive records program. Regardless of where you're from, it's always useful to appoint a records advisory board to support and guide your program. Read our advisory Records Advisory Boards to learn more about how they can function as part of your program.
Where to begin
To understand the various aspects of a records program, see Publication #61, Seven Attributes of an Effective Records Management Program, or attend our records management workshops.
The best way to start a program is to conduct an inventory that will tell you what records you have and where they are. For a step-by-step guide on how to conduct a records inventory, see Publication #76, Inventory and Planning: The First Step in Records Management, or attend one of our inventory workshops.
If you are from a repository that collects historical records, an inventory is a good way to gain control over a disordered collection. If you are just getting started, first develop a collecting policy that will determine the scope of what records you will actively seek to acquire or accept from donors. For more information on developing a collecting policy, see our publication, Strengthening New York's Historical Records Programs: A Self-Study Guide.
What to keep
One goal of an inventory project is to determine what records you can legally discard. The State Archives provides retention and disposition guidelines for local government and state agencies on how long to keep records. To help you determine which records have historical value, consult Publication #50, Appraisal of Local Government Records for Historical Value. Read Publication #81, Historical Records and the Local Government Historian and work with your historian. Non-government organizations should contact the Association of Records Management Administrators for information about records retention and disposition.
After the inventory
A records inventory involves collecting data about all records in all formats, including electronic records, but it shouldn't end there. Use the inventory data to prepare a needs assessment and records management plan to guide your program.
A needs assessment can identify whether you need to
- plan more storage space to accommodate a growing volume of records
- purchase software to help you manage your records
- microfilm records either to preserve them or save space
- scan some records to make them more accessible
- index some records
- provide special care for valuable historical records
- protect records that are vulnerable to disaster
Attend our Conducting a Needs Assessment or a BPA workshops. The State Archives has also developed Publication #59, Archival Needs Assessment Guidelines and Template to help you plan a historical records program.
Moving to electronic records
Before implementing a new electronic records system, do the necessary research. The State Archives has a publication and workshop on how to conduct a business process analysis (BPA) to determine where an electronic system would function and how it will change the way you create and use records. If you don't have the time or technical expertise, consider hiring a consultant to analyze your situation. Planning for new technology is key to saving time, money, and other valuable resources.
You can't afford not to manage your records. The State Archives has two grant programs to help you get started. Local governments can apply for funding to do most of the activities described above from the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund. Contact your Regional Advisory Officer for more information or to arrange a site visit. Historical records repositories are eligible for funding from the Documentary Heritage Program (DHP) grant program.