Records Management Primer

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Records Management Primer

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Records Management
Records Management is an ancient practice of keeping, or archiving, records usually of an important public nature. It only started to become a formal practice identified as Records Management in the 20th Century. Prior to this records managers would have been termed archivists and librarians.

Throughout this documentation the terminology adopted is taken from that used by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and DoD 5015.02 RMA Standard.


Records management is a process for the systematic management of information recorded on all media; traditionally paper but increasingly in electronic systems. It encompasses the whole life cycle of information, from creation through to final disposal. It is based on the principles of regular review and controlled retention or destruction. The general aim is to ensure cost effective business processes, legal and regulatory compliance, and good practice.

A record is information that is created, received, and maintained as evidence by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business. While the definition of a record is often identified strongly with a document, a record can be either a tangible object or digital information that has value to an organization. Birth certificates, medical x-rays, office documents, databases, application data, and email are all examples of records.

The other crucial aspect of records and records management is their veracity for use as evidence. Indeed, records management can be seen as being primarily concerned with the identification and management of the evidence of an organization's Business Activities.

Electronic records management systems can reduce the burden of managing records, making them easier to file, search, use, and eventually destroy. This is the purpose of the Alfresco Records Management module.

In order to fully administer the system in a constructive and competent way, you should familiarize yourself with the Key Concepts below.

Key Concepts

Record and Electronic Record

Records can be viewed as consisting of:

  • content
  • structure
  • context
  • presentation

The content is present in one or more physical and/or electronic documents that convey the message (the informational content) of the record. These are stored in such a way as to allow future users to understand them and their context. This view implies that a well-managed record consists of, in addition to the content of its document(s), information about its structure and metadata that provides information on its context, and its presentation to users. The presentation depends on a combination of the record’s contents, structure and (in the case of electronic records) the software used to present it.

In the world of physical records, the vast majority of records are on paper and are included in files, physically constituted of one or more volumes of records inserted within paper folders.  Procedural controls should prevent users from changing the records, or their positions within the file.

Similar concepts apply to electronic records. A record is made from one or more electronic documents. These documents can be word processing documents, email messages, spreadsheets, moving or still images, audio files, or any other type of digital object. The documents become records when they are set aside, that is, filed into the records management system. Upon capture, the records are filed, that is, they are assigned a place in the file plan corresponding to the record category to which they belong, allowing the system to manage them. The records are assigned to a record folder.

For preservation purposes, it is necessary to appreciate that electronic records are often made up of several components (the word “component” is used to avoid the IT word “file”, so as to reduce the likelihood of confusion with records management “filing”).  Each component is an object managed by a computer operating system, and they may be in different formats; but they are all needed together to make up a record. Not all records have more than one component; for example, most word processing documents are made of only one component. An example of a record with several components would be an email with various attachments, a more complex example would be a web page with text, graphics, and style sheets; it is not unusual for a web page to contain one HTML component, dozens of JPEG image components, and a handful of CSS (cascading style sheet) components.

An essential quality of records is that their informational content is fixed. One consequence of this is that no action carried out on electronic records can be allowed to interfere with the relationships between its components; in other words, all actions carried out on any record must preserve the correct relationships between all its components. So, for example, whenever any record is moved or copied, it must be moved or copied in a way that keeps all its components and all their relationships.

Authoritative Records

ISO 15489 Information and Documentation -- Records Management, describes an authoritative record as being a record that has the characteristics of:

  • authenticity
  • reliability
  • integrity
  • usability

As explained in ISO 15489, the aim of all records management systems should be to ensure that records stored within them are authoritative. Summarizing, an authoritative record:

  • can be proven to be what it purports to be
  • can be proven to have been created or sent by the person purported to have created or sent it
  • can be proven to have been created or sent at the time purported
  • can be depended on because its contents can be trusted as a full and accurate representation of the transactions, activities or facts to which it attests;
  • is complete and unaltered
  • can be located, retrieved, presented and interpreted

The requirements in DoD 5015.2 are designed to ensure that records stored in a DoD 5015.2-compliant system are authoritative.

However, compliance with these requirements alone is not sufficient; the existence of, and compliance with, corporate policies is also required.

Records Series, Record Categories, and Record Folders

Paper records generally are accumulated in physical files, contained in paper folders.  The paper files are aggregated into a structure, or filing scheme.  In a records management system electronic records can be managed as if they are accumulated in electronic files and stored in electronic folders.  Strictly, electronic files and folders need not have a real existence; they are virtual, in the sense that they do not really “contain” anything; in fact they consist of the metadata attributes of the records assigned to them.  Further, in many cases, there need be no real distinction in the electronic system between file and folder.  However, these details are not generally visible to system users; records management application software allows users to view and manage folders as if they physically contained the documents logically assigned to the files.  This user-centered view is how the Alfresco Records Management system is presented to users.  The rest of this document therefore describes electronic records folders as “containing” records, for ease of understanding.

Series and Categories are different kinds of construct to folders. Series and Categories provide an intellectual framework for classification, while folders aggregate records; Series and Categories are the building blocks of file plan classification, while folders are not. Despite these major differences, it is helpful to list them together, as they are common to both constructs

The root level of any file plan can contain only Records Series, and a Record Series can only contain Record Category.  This is for reasons of good records management practice.

The File Plan

Records management aggregates record folders in a structured manner, and good practice dictates that this structure should reflect business functions. The representation of this aggregation is referred to as a file plan.  The file plan is commonly a hierarchy composed of three levels: Series, Category, and Folder.

Just as record folders appear to exist even though they are really no more than aggregations of records, so higher levels of the file plan hierarchy seem to exist, though they are no more than aggregations of record folders and/or higher levels.

Controls and Security

Management of a records management system can vary depending on the size and complexity of the organization, with the distinction between administrators and other users can be convoluted and is sometimes unclear. Different organizations will implement the system differently. For example, a small organization may implement the system with a single administrator, while a large organization may need several different administrative positions, each with different access permissions. Therefore in order to satisfy all requirements the system is highly configurable. This section introduces some key concepts and requirements around control and security.

The system needs to provide features to support the requirements for protection of records as it is essential that organizations are able to control who is permitted to access records and in what circumstances, as records may contain personal, commercial or operationally sensitive data.

Restrictions on access may also need to be applied to external users. For example, in some countries where freedom of information legislation permits access to selected public records, citizens may wish to view records. Also some organizations may wish to share parts of their records management repository with partner organizations.

The basic concept used to govern what a user can do is termed a capability, some systems will refer to these as rights – however we use the term rights to determine what a user can do overall, which would include their access rights on a particular record. The simplest capability is the Declare Records capability. A user who possesses this capability has the right to declare records in the system.

There are in excess of 20 different capabilities defined and so it would be difficult and time consuming to assign capabilities to users individually. In order to reduce the administrative burden the system introduces the concept of roles.