Records Management FAQ

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Terms and Definitions

Where can I find definitions for the records management terms used on this website?

The glossary includes many of the records management and archival terms used on this website.

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General Records Management Information 

What is records management?

Records management is the systematic control of records throughout their life cycle—from the moment they are created to the moment they are destroyed or transferred to the Archives for permanent retention.

Why is records management important?

Ultimately, records management ensures that institutional records of vital historical, fiscal, and legal value are identified and preserved, and that non-essential records are discarded in a timely manner according to established guidelines. Benefits of records management include more effective management of your current records (both paper and electronic); a reduced/eliminated level of record-keeping redundancies; reduced costs for records storage equipment and supplies; and increased usable office space through the elimination of unnecessary file storage. In addition, records management provides institutional accountability and timely access to information.

What authority does the Smithsonian Institution Archives have for records management?

According to Smithsonian Directive (SD) 501, "Archives and Records of the Smithsonian Institution": "All documents created or received by employees of SI in the course of official business are records of the Institution, and none may be disposed of except in accord [with guidelines] established by the Smithsonian Archives."

What is considered a record?

A record is any official recorded information, regardless of medium or characteristics, created, received, or maintained by a Smithsonian museum, office, or employee. Records document decisions, actions, policies, and procedures; serve as legal evidence; provide an audit trail; provide for accountability; or create a corporate memory. Records may be found in filing cabinets, in storage rooms, on servers, or on electronic media. Records are often paper, but may also be photographs, film, video, audio, email, spreadsheets, databases, word processing documents, websites, social media, or any number of other formats. In general, three-dimensional objects and museum, archives, and library collections are not considered records.

What records management services does the Smithsonian Institution Archives provide?

The Archives provides the following services for all Smithsonian units upon request:

  • helping identify which records to keep and which to discard (appraisal of records)
  • providing guidance in organizing records
  • supplying boxes and physically transferring records to the Archives or the Records Center
  • assisting in the logistics of transferring electronic records
  • destroying records according to established schedules

I work for the Smithsonian. Who is my contact person for transferring records and other records management services?

The Archives assigns one or two archivists to be the liaisons for each Smithsonian unit.  Representatives of professional societies should contact siarm@si.edu or 202-633-5920 for assistance with their records.

How do I manage the files in my office?

The Smithsonian Institution Archives provides general guidance for organizing and managing active files. For more specific or customized guidance, contact your Archives liaison.

What is the difference between active and inactive records?

Active records are your current working files that are regularly used to conduct business. Inactive records are no longer needed to conduct current business, but may be needed for infrequent consultation.

What do I do with records I no longer need in my office?

All records should be appraised to determine if they are permanent or temporary records. Permanent records should be sent to the Archives. Temporary records, depending on the type of record, should be discarded, destroyed, or sent to the Records Center to be destroyed at a later date. Please refer to Appraising Records for further guidance on having records appraised.

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Records Disposition Schedules

What is a records disposition schedule?

A records disposition schedule is a set of instructions governing the retention and disposition of records. It is used to determine if a particular type of record (known as a records series) is permanent or temporary, how long that record series needs to be kept, and what should ultimately happen to records in that series. A disposition schedule may also be referred to as a retention schedule.

Is there a disposition schedule for my records?

All staff may use the Smithsonian-wide records disposition schedule. In some cases, unit-specific disposition schedules (for staff only) also exist. In most cases, these were written prior to the creation of the institution-wide schedule. The retention guidance is the same in the unit-specific schedules as it is in the institution-wide schedule. If you think there may be a draft or preliminary schedule for your unit that you would like to access, contact your Archives liaison.

What if I can't find my records in the disposition schedule?

Follow the steps in the Appraising Records guide. The records may fall under a series with a title that is not used in your office or they may be an uncommon type of record that needs to be individually appraised.

What is an office of record?

An office of record is the office responsible for maintaining the most complete set of a particular records series. When multiple units have copies of the same records, one unit is assigned to maintain those records until they can be discarded or sent to the Archives. Units that are not the office of record are required to maintain their copies for a shorter time period and will not send their copies to the Archives. Assigning an office of record minimizes duplication of records between units and within the Archives. The phrase "location of originals" is sometimes used in place of "office of record."

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Transferring, Discarding, and Accessing Records 

How do I send records to the Archives?

Follow the steps in Transferring or Destroying Records.

Does the Archives supply boxes?

The Archives supplies acid-free boxes for permanent records and records center boxes for temporary records. These boxes should only be used for records being transferred to the Archives or the Records Center. The Archives does not supply boxes for any other purpose. If a unit requires more than 100 acid-free boxes or more than 100 temporary boxes in a single fiscal year, that unit is responsible for buying the additional boxes. Units may also use any box about the size of a banker's box or photocopier paper box to transfer temporary records. Contact your Archives liaison [add link to contact info] for more information.

Units outside of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area will usually need to mail their records. The Archives does not supply mailing boxes because they are often damaged in the mail. The Archives will provide postage paid mailing labels for records mailed within the United States. Once the records arrive, they will be transferred to appropriate boxes.

What happens to my permanent records?

When permanent records are transferred to the Archives, they are maintained there forever. Each records transfer will receive a unique accession number and information about the records will be entered into the Archives' collections database. In most cases, a finding aid to the collection will be placed on the Archives' public website. Information about the collection will also be added to the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). If there are no restrictions on the records, or after the restriction period has passed, the records may be used by any researcher. You can search finding aids using the Archives Collection Search.

What if I need to access records that I have already transferred to the Archives?

To access your records or any other records within the Archives, contact the Reference Team. It is helpful if you know the accession number that was sent to you at the time the records were transferred. If you do not have this information, a reference archivist will assist you in finding the records you need. Records may be consulted in the Archives' Reading Room or charged out to you if they are needed for an extended period of time. No appointment is necessary to visit the Reading Room, but many of the collections are located off-site and may need to be ordered up to a week in advance; therefore it is recommended that you contact the Archives prior to visiting. The Reading Room is located in Capital Gallery West, Suite 3000, and is open from 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday, except federal holidays.

What happens to my temporary records?

When temporary records are transferred to the Records Center, they are assigned a unique identifier and a destruction date. The records will be maintained at the Records Center until that date and then automatically sent out for destruction. Your unit will be notified after the records have been destroyed, unless prior arrangements have been made with the Archives. Only staff within your unit, and those who are given written permission by your unit, may access your records at the Records Center.

What if I need to access records that are scheduled for destruction?

To access your records that have been transferred to the Records Center, contact the Reference Team. It is helpful if you know the identification number that was sent to you at the time the records were transferred. If you do not have this information, a reference archivist will assist you in finding the records you need. Records may be consulted in the Archives' Reading Room or charged out to you if they are needed for an extended period of time.

What if records scheduled for destruction become subject to an active investigation or litigation?

If there are any possible or pending investigations or legal actions that might bear upon records you have sent to Records Center, notify your Archives liaison immediately. This includes any investigation or legal actions to which your office is a third party. Upon notification, destruction of the records will be immediately suspended.

Can I discard or destroy records without transferring them to the Records Center?

Yes. Before discarding or destroying records, refer to the guidance in Transferring or Destroying Records. If you have records containing sensitive information, they must be destroyed. If you have more sensitive records than is practical to attempt to destroy within your office, consider transferring the records to the Records Center or using a professional shredding service.

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