Thursday, 15 August 2013

A Records Management Placement

I arrived in London on the evening of Monday15th July to start a placement the following morning with a records management unit of one of the Royal Colleges. Having had very little experience of records management I was keen to try and get to grips with how the unit was set up and the policies and procedures in place to assist with the everyday running. As I am currently doing the records management module on my long distance course with Dundee, I had read a lot about the theoretical processes and ideas which should be applied and was keen to try and see these in practice.

Tuesday morning began with a short tour of the library and the three staff that work in the department as well as a quick look in the store room which was downstairs in the basement. This was quite remarkable as it was smaller than I had expected and the quantity of material within it was minimal, suggesting the records management system was working. There was even space on the shelves to put new consignments. I think my imagination had been working overtime as I was expecting a much larger space filled to the brim with records. One side of the room was given over to semi current storage and the other to archival material.

The semi-current storage
The room was kept fairly cold with an efficient air conditioning system keeping the temperature consistently low. Although the basement is not the best place for record storage, and is certainly not the recommended location within archival theory, office space, particularly in London, is at a premium and in house records management units are often allocated spaces which in an ideal world are not ideally suited. Having said that I did not notice any water pipes located within the space.The unit relies on an access database to enter items into the system as they are transferred and to identify specific lists of material should they be recalled by a department. All items transferred are accompanied by a transfer list which provides details of the authorising personnel, the quantity of material and its covering dates with a brief description accompanied by disposal and access restrictions. This is all entered into the system, the material packed into appropriate boxes and then locations are added to a separate excel sheet. As disposal dates approach the access database can be used to search files for the weeks review files or next months list of files due for review enabling the records manager to keep abreast of changing status of material. This provided an example of what can be done with relatively few resources as well as an interesting contrast to another records management of one of the Royal College's which I visited the next day.

The records manager there had been in post since 2011 having come from a high risk environment in a local authority which had a fully operational ERMS system in place. At the time there were very few systems in use. She was very quick to point out that although we have these lovely definitions of records as evidence of activity, a lot of what she does is actually information management. Information can be useful despite not necessarily strictly qualifying as a record. The example given was the large quantity of data sets which the College held as part of their research work. Whereas the normal approach may be to hold on to the final report and discard the research process documents, data sets have long term value and are therefore also kept.

As part of the Information technology team, the Archivist found her position within the organisational structure central to the activities of the organisation and consequently extremely beneficial to her role. There is good dialogue, but much of this is reliant on organisational culture - in fact she said she could not emphasise how important culture can be. As part of the IT team she found her position extremely useful as records were becoming more and more reliant on technology. It enabled early involvement from the moment of creation, rather than the traditional involvement as a record becomes semi-current and then archival, thereby offering a much more holistic approach to Information Management.

After her arrival in 2011 the records manager first began to establish an information management framework to meet issues surrounding risk. This was an important starting point and a good way of convincing management of the value of records management if you are able to highlight the potential risks of data protection penalties. A fine from the ICO of up to £500,000 can be a convincing argument with the emphasis on saving money and reputational damage. Policies were also written including an Information Governance policy, Data Protection policy and an Information Security policy. As reliability and integrity of a record are reliant on the security of that record this is a central issue for any records manager. This was followed up with classes on Data Protection and responsibilities of staff, which although time consuming were beneficial as staff got to know who she was. The College then started encrypting computers and memory sticks, again mitigating risk.

This visit providing a really interesting comparison between an organisation which was starting afresh with its records management program to that of an organisation with inherited systems and processes and not necessarily the organisational wide procedural framework. What did unite the two places was the need for good communication. You need to approach people in the right way to encourage participation rather than just force the point. The records manager at RCOG rejected using records management jargon as a means of communication emphasising the need for familiar and understandable language. This she maintained was imperative. If people don't want to cooperate then it makes your job a lot harder as they will become obstructive if you try and force the point. She advocated a soft approach emphasising the benefits of what you, as a service, can offer to your colleagues.


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  2. Records management in Kentucky is the practice of identifying, classifying, archiving, preserving, and sometimes destroying records.

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