If you’ve been planning to clean out your emails or file folders but just haven’t gotten around to it — or if you’re afraid to toss anything that might be a public record — now is the time to keep it or trash it.
“When you start the new year, it’s a great time to look back at your records. With digital files, it’s even easier to keep too much,” said University archivist Nicholas Graham said. Getting organized takes time up front, but it also makes it easier to find what you need, helps you become more efficient and reduces operating costs and employee stress.
Every department on campus is responsible for managing the records in their office according to University and state guidelines. Individual employees are responsible for managing their work email. The records management staff at Wilson Library can’t do that work for you, but they can visit your office, look through the records with you and talk about strategies for getting organized. They also offer Records Management 101, an in-person class taught twice a year through human resources.
The key principles to remember when decluttering are deletion, retention and prevention.
The final authority for University employees on what can be safely deleted is the 218-page General Records Retention and Disposition Schedule, available online. “It empowers staff to legally and responsibly throw things away,” Graham said. The document details rules for storing different kinds of records and for how long. For example, conflict of interest records should be held permanently in the University Archives, but faculty or staff election records can be discarded after one year.
In general, many types of emails and documents are not permanent records and not subject to these rules. With the help of the University archives and public records offices, the Gazette developed a simplified decision tree for what to keep and what to trash.
Transitory records — calendar items, mass campus messages, reminders and messages like “running late” or “fill out your timecard” — are not public records and can be deleted, said Gavin Young, senior director of public records. If the idea of culling through a year’s worth of emails sounds prohibitive, one expert suggested that you divide 2018 emails into folders for each month and work through them a month at a time.
Many other digital and paper records can be legally discarded: duplicate files, files maintained by other offices, draft documents, routing slips, transmittal sheets and “while you were out” messages for example. Software tools can help you locate duplicate files (Duplicate File Finder, Duplicate Cleaner, CCleaner) and can scan for and delete sensitive information like Social Security or credit card numbers(Identity Finder) that are not part of a public record, said Mark Ingram, infrastructure and technology manager at University development. Ingram leads ClutterBusters, a committee of about 25 development employees that has developed a set of best practices for managing and storing files.
When you’re done deleting, empty your digital trash can. “I empty my trash at the end of every day,” said Young. “I don’t delete files to store them in the trash.”
Once you’ve cleaned out the trash, organize what you’ve retained. Here are some best practice guidelines from Ingram and the ClutterBusters:
- Store files on a network drive that will be automatically backed up;
- Keep public records with sensitive information on a secure server;
- Use folder names that are concise and descriptive, preferably using naming conventions developed for everyone in your office; and
- Use a folder description file with fields to describe the contents of each folder.
University Archives is interested in permanently preserving only those records that “tell the story of the University,” Graham said. These records include publications, reports, photos, videos and meeting minutes.
“Usually, the biggest mistake people make is not addressing this till it’s too late,” said Graham, “too late” being a major office renovation or a move, or an employee’s retirement. “There’s work we can do now to make our lives easier later on,” he said.
- Delete transitory emails right away, so they don’t crowd your inbox;
- Dump deleted files at the end of each day, like taking out the trash;
- Be organized. Use folders to organize items that would be considered public records;
- Make sure at least one other person in your office has access to the folders you control and knows what’s in them just in case;
- When sorting digital or paper public records, label them with a to be destroyed date based on the General Records Schedule; and
- Try to keep file storage simple.
“It’s the Wild West as far as file storage goes,” Ingram said. With so many file storage and file sharing options — Google docs, “the cloud,” Sharepoint, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive and departmental file servers, to name a few — public records can get easily misplaced or lost, so either keep your records together in one place or remember where you are storing them.