Vital records must be protected from destruction. They offer direct evidence of legal status, ownership, accounts receivable, and the obligations incurred by local governments. They contain the information needed to function during or resume operations after a disaster. Some must be maintained in their original form to be admissible as evidence in a court of law. In short, vital records are irreplaceable.
Loss of Vital Records
Three to five percent of most local government records can be classified as vital. Without them, daily business would stop, and the public interest would be endangered. Local offices would also:
Be vulnerable to litigation
Be exposed to the unplanned expenses of financial settlements or loss of revenue
Lose information and therefore efficiency
Lose the continuity of your operation
Before staff can protect vital records, they must identify what records created by the office are vital. As a first step in developing a vital records program, staff should conduct a routine records inventory to identify, analyze, and classify the records series. Records custodians can then place them in one of four categories:
Nonessential Records: These records are listed on a records retention schedule for routine destruction according to statewide guidelines. Loss of these records presents no obstacle to restoring daily business.
Useful Records: These records, if lost, might cause some inconvenience but could be easily replaced. Loss of these records does not present any significant obstacle to restoring daily business.
Important Records: These records, although replaceable, can be reproduced only with considerable costs in funds, time, and labor.
Vital Records: These records are either intrinsically irreplaceable or because copies do not have the same value as the originals. They are essential to the continuity of services during a disaster or to the restoration of daily business when it has been interrupted.
Records custodians commonly use one of three methods -duplication and dispersal, on-site storage, or off-site storage- to secure their vital records.
Duplication and Dispersal
Vital records can protected by distributing duplicates to one or more locations outside your office. Duplicates can be created on paper, microfilm, or magnetic tape. To chose a format, consider the volume of records to be duplicated, the number of times they will need updating, the type of storage the medium will require (magnetic tapes and original master negatives of microfilm, for example, require controlled temperature and humidity), and the equipment and power needed. Certain formats have a clear-cut advantages. For example, computer output microfilm (COM) is well suited for large volumes of computer runs that will be frequently updated.
Once duplicates have been created, distribute them in a variety of ways. Many local governments routinely distribute records to a location outside the office where they were created. Some give copies of minutes, resolutions, and ordinances to their public libraries or local representatives. Those who use private vendors for microfilm or computer services often store file copies of microfilm master negatives and computer back-up tapes at the vendor's off-site location.
Often, local government buildings will be the only public facility in the locality, or the only facility with the staff, equipment, and supplies needed to house records. If officials choose on-site storage, they must analyze the condition of the building, consider the equipment and supplies needed, and institute procedures for control.
Buildings: Establish the adequacy of the floor load, the lighting and ventilation, the fire ratings of the walls and doors, the smoke and fire alarms, and the sprinklers or halon fire suppression systems, and you must eliminate leaks, insects, vermin, and other hazards.
Equipment: Consider the construction of fire resistant vaults or else purchase cabinets or safes that meet or exceed the specifications of Underwriter Laboratories. Underwriter Laboratories rates storage and filing equipment on the basis of how it stands up to interior temperature and humidity during various lengths of exposure to fire. Generally, paper begins to deteriorate at 350E Fahrenheit with humidity over 65 percent; magnetic tape, microfilm, photographs cannot withstand temperatures over 150E Fahrenheit with humidity over 85 percent.
Procedural Considerations: Routinely update vital records; prohibit food, beverages, and smoking in the areas where vital records are stored; segregate vital records from combustible material; inspect the electrical system, the building, and the fire suppression system periodically; and you must regularly simulate an emergency to test the effectiveness of your program.
If officials choose off-site storage, vital records must be stored in a location away from the building in which they were created. Staff should be close enough to the off-site storage center to have quick access to the records to use, control, and update them. Records could be stored in a reasonably secure library or public building in the area. Officials might be able to exchange vital records with a neighboring government and use its facility for off-site storage, or might be able to rent space in a private records storage facility. The advantages of nearby off-site storage include:
General Effectiveness - It is unlikely that the same disaster will affect both the office building and an off-site storage facility.
Ease of Retrieval - Unlike duplication and dispersal, where records are often distributed to a number of off-site locations, nearby off-site storage simplifies access.
Ease of Control - As with on-site storage, staff can analyze the condition of the storage building, consider the equipment and supplies needed, and institute procedures for control.
Vital Records Team and Coordinator
To develop a successful vital records program, a team of officials should be selected to appoint and assist a vital records coordinator. The team should have expertise in administration, finance, law and records management. With the coordinator, this team of experts should select criteria to show which records are "vital" and provide guidelines for their protection.
Identifying vital records and preventing the loss of critical information in the event of disaster requires staff support. The vital records coordinator, therefore, should communicate policy and procedures to office personnel and enlist their participation. Counties should consider publishing a vital records manual or conducting periodic seminars for their officials and staff.
A vital records management program is instituted to prevent the loss of information critical to the daily operation of local government and to permit government to function during a calamity, or to resume service afterwards. An inventory is completed and records series are scheduled. Next, records are classified into one of four categories: nonessential, useful, important, or vital. Finally, a prevention strategy ( duplication/dispersal, on and off-site storage ) is implemented to safeguard vital records.
This guide is also available in hardcopy from the KSHS Library/Archives Records Management Section.