Key Concepts

An understanding of the following key concepts is helpful for the development of an agency’s electronic records management program. 

Electronic Records

Various types and formats of electronic records exist but there are two main categories of electronic records: born digital records and digitized records. Born digital records are those records created with a computer that require a computer to be readable by people. A digitized record is one that is born analog (paper) and has been converted into a machine readable format using a scanner or camera. For the purposes of this handbook electronic records of both types should be handled in the same way. Electronic records such as email and word processing documents may resemble analog records, but more sophisticated electronic records such as geospatial records and databases exist which do not bear resemblance to analog records.

No matter how the electronic record was created, it is important to remember that an electronic record is one that requires a computer to read and translate the information for people to read.

Definition of a Record

The California Public Records Act (CPRA) defines a public record as, “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” (Source: California Public Records Act, Government Code Section 6252(e))

A record includes all forms of recorded information that currently exist or that may exist in the future. The CPRA specifies a record as any, “handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, photocopying, transmitting by electronic mail or facsimile, and every other means of recording upon any tangible thing any form of communication or representation, including letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combinations thereof, and any record thereby created, regardless of the manner in which the record has been stored.” (Source: California Public Records Act, Government Code Section 6252(f))

Essentially, an official state record includes any and all information produced for the purposes of conducting government business regardless of the format the record might take.

Information Governance

The idea of information governance can be attributed to the explosion of electronic data generated in recent decades. In short, information governance may be interpreted as records management for electronic records. Information governance incorporates additional records management methodologies which cater to the unique issues records managers face when dealing with electronic records. Some of the fundamental principles of information governance such as appraisal, use, storage and disposition will resonate with records managers versed in analog records but proper management of electronic records necessitates attention to issues such as metadata management, storage optimization, electronic discovery requirements, and privacy attributes that may prove foreign to some. Appropriate information governance is crucial to the support of an agency’s immediate and future legal requirements regarding electronic records.

Information governance establishes a course of action for electronic records to ensure their appropriate and effective use and to allow an agency to meet its specific goals.

Metadata

Metadata plays a central role in electronic records management. Often defined as “data about data,” metadata’s function is essential for e-discovery and determining record authenticity. Specifically, metadata describes the content of a file and allows users to locate and evaluate data. Metadata is most useful if a structured format is in place using a controlled vocabulary.

For a more thorough overview of metadata please see the “Metadata” section of the handbook.

Long-Term Retention Approaches

Given the variety of digital records and the fast pace of changing technology one must consider options for ensuring access to records that an agency may want to retain for future use.

Conversion. Converting a file such as a word document into a platform neutral format greatly increases the chances of having the file available for future use. One option may be to convert files retained for future use into PDF/A. Given the availability of programs such as Adobe Acrobat which easily convert files into a more desirable PDF/A format this approach is feasible. A records manager may want to inform or educate staff about converting files that may be needed by the agency for future use.

Migration. Migration refers to moving a record or file from one platform, storage medium, or other physical format to another. For example, an agency may have active records that are stored on volatile magnetic disks. Migrating those records to more stable storage such as a storage server or optical disc is imperative to ensure availability for future use.

The needs of an agency and the electronic records that are identified as worth retaining will dictate strategies for long term records retention. Given the complexities of electronic records it is best to consult with your agency’s information technology department on a solution that promotes long term availability of active electronic records.

Electronic Records Management Goals

Electronic records management requires planning, budgeting, organizing, directing, training, and the control of activities associated with managing records. Electronic records require continuous management throughout their entire lifecycle because of the potential for lost or unreadable data. This is a complex task amidst the ever growing volume and diversity of electronic information. Whatever the methodical approach taken by your agency for your electronic records program, some key records attributes to be aware of include the following:

Trustworthy. This refers to the information that is retained in your records. Is it reliable, authentic, and unaltered? Will your records hold up in a court of law if necessary? A collaborative effort with your IT department to identify and implement a strategy to ensure authenticity and trustworthiness of your records may prove valuable if the records in question go before a judge.

Complete. Is the information contained in your records stored in such a way that it will be comprehensible if needed in the future? Proper metadata input will help identify the records’ relationship to that of the agency’s activity and to other records. Metadata is also helpful in discovering the record for future use. A record is not complete if it cannot be located and used at a later time.

Accessible. If your record is not accessible it is useless. Therefore a strategy to locate and access records is important. Whether the records need immediate access or not can be determined by the needs of your agency and the possible public interest in the record.

Durable. Again, if your record is not readable it is useless. Safeguarding records against possible loss is key to the records’ durability and should be considered when selecting how and where to store them. The lifespan of storage media is not very long. The fast pace of changing technology may make it impossible to read files off of certain storage media after less than ten years. One should also consider the environmental conditions of where the storage media will be held. A hot warehouse or damp storage container are not ideal holding areas for any storage media. Electronic records to best in climate controlled conditions.