FAQ: Can a local government destroy a paper original after scanning?

By Angela Ossar, Government Information Analyst

If you’re a state agency looking for guidance, here’s the state agency version.

Frankly, I don’t know how we haven’t written about this before.

Ask any analyst in the Records Management Assistance unit what their #1 most frequently asked question is, and I guarantee the answer (well, besides “How long do I keep [type of record]”) is:  Can I destroy a paper original after scanning? The question is almost always asked by a local government entity — city, county, school, etc. So, this article applies to local governments.

I answer this question so often that I actually keep a template in my email account for answering it, making minor tweaks to match the question — a hint of Laserfiche or a dab of disaster recovery. I assure you, whatever your question about source document destruction is, we are happy to walk you through an answer that fits your particular situation.

The answer, in brief, is “Yes, but…..” And the longer the retention period of that record is, the louder that but gets. So, let’s look at this question in a little more depth.

Source Document Destruction: Records with a Retention Period of Less than 10 Years

Can you destroy the paper original of a record after scanning? Well:

Yes

It is perfectly acceptable to keep a scanned document in lieu of its original; the scanned document just needs to be designated the record copy and retained for the full retention period.  That’s at the very beginning of Sec. 205.002, Local Government Code:

§205.002. Authorization.

Any local government record data may be stored electronically in addition to or instead of source documents in paper or other media, subject to the requirements of this chapter and rules adopted under it.

And in fact, I think we can all agree that digitizing records is a great way to speed up retrieval, allow access to multiple users at once (you don’t have to track down the person who has the file), protect essential records, etc. And let’s face it, destroying paper source documents can really free up a lot of physical storage space, which will reduce your physical storage costs.

Those Local Government Code requirements only apply to records with a retention period of 10 years or more. More on that in a bit.

But…

That’s just TSLAC’s perspective, and we always give the caveat that a government needs to run the conversion to “paperless” by any affected parties, like the government’s auditors, or the federal or state agency to which the document is being submitted. TSLAC is not the only government agency with rules.

For example, at TSLAC, we retain all original receipts for travel reimbursements because our agency’s policy requires it.  According to our accountants, it’s easy to alter a document and then make copies, digital or paper. To use an example I heard from an auditors’ organization, someone trying to claim reimbursement for a steak dinner they had the day after they returned from their trip might just “forget” to make sure that the bottom of the receipt, where the date is printed, gets scanned.  So, it would be a good idea to think about the negative consequences of destroying the original — like, in the example we just used, an agency’s not being able to prove that the steak dinner was an allowable expense because the date did not appear on the scanned copy.

Also, the agency needs to make sure that the record would be acceptable evidence in court. A judge may require that an agency prove the authenticity of a scanned copy — that it’s an exact copy of the original — and, if they are not satisfied that the scanned copy is an exact copy, require the original to be produced.

Otherwise, how long a government agency retains an original after scanning is up to the agency.  In general, we give a soft 6 months recommendation, and we do tell agencies to make sure a visual quality control check is done on every single scan to make sure that it is a complete representation of the original.

Source Document Destruction: Records with a Retention Period of 10+ Years

You know, as an archivist, I can’t even give this one a “Yes, but.”  So, I’m going to give it a “Yeah……if you insist……” and hope that you’ll read my emphatic “BUT.”

Yeah……if you insist……

One city I recently spoke to has this rule: if the document has a retention period of 10 years or more, they retain the original.  And that’s exactly on target with what I recommend.

Ten years is actually where Bulletin B rules kick in – see Section 205.003 paragraph (a):

(a) The commission shall adopt rules establishing standards and procedures for the electronic storage of any local government record data of permanent value and may adopt rules establishing standards and procedures for the electronic storage of any local government record data whose retention period is at least 10 years on a records retention schedule issued by the commission.

This means that if the records you’re scanning have a retention period of 10 years or more, you must make sure that…

  • Adequate technical documentation is kept (Sec. 7.73 for data files, Sec. 7.74 for text documents, Sec. 7.77 for electronic records in general)
  • You have an electronic records security program (Sec. 7.75)
  • Storage media is maintained in the right environmental conditions, is being recopied on a set schedule, and is labeled with all required information  (Sec. 7.76)
  • The scanning conforms to ANSI/AIIM standards and is done at the right resolution (Sec. 7.76)
  • A visual quality control check is performed on every document (Sec. 7.76)
  • The recordkeeping system that holds the records does not provide an impediment to public access (Sec. 7.79)

But…

Even though there are rules in place to try to ensure that electronic records are accessible, usable, and authentic for their full retention period, there are gaps in those rules. (They were last updated in 1998.) TSLAC is currently in the process of revising Bulletin B, but of course government can’t always move as quickly as technology.

When it comes to permanent records, records we create today are going to be historical records one day.  I do worry that a lot of our recorded history isn’t going to be available to future generations.

Does TSLAC have actual recommendations?

In addition to the above considerations about auditing, authenticity, data maintenance, and so forth, we also recommend this: If you are considering destroying the original of a record with a retention period of 10+ years — especially if you’re considering destroying the original of a permanent record — please take the time to learn about digital preservation. We developed a 2-part webinar series on digital preservation precisely in response to this question. Our training is by no means a comprehensive education in digital archives, but we do talk about the following:

In “Strategies for Preserving Electronic Records, Part 1: Introduction (available here)

  • The fragility of digital information. Electronic records present myriad preservation challenges, like technical dependency and obsolescence. Why is an electronic record often more fragile than a paper one?
  • Why is digital preservation important? Why is this something that records managers have to know about?
  • Storage choices. Where should digital information be saved? What’s the life expectancy of a hard drive? Are gold CDs the way to go? How do you save information so that it’s really accessible for the long term?
  • File formats for long-term preservation. Is PDF/A a good format for preserving textual or imaged records? What about audio and video recordings, digital photos, spreadsheets, and email?

In “Strategies for Preserving Electronic Records, Part 2: Managing Digital Content” (available here)

  • Preservation methods for digital records, such as migration, normalization, emulation, and printing to hard copy.
  • First steps for establishing a digital preservation program, including defining the scope of file formats accepted, conducting a needs assessment, and preparing a business case.
  • Training opportunities for more advanced information on digital preservation.

As always, we are here to help you with your questions. I’ll even promise not to get more than reasonably hysterical if you’re destroying source documents of permanent records.

And please keep an eye on the Texas Record for updates about revisions to the Electronic Records Standards and Procedures (Bulletin B).

6 thoughts on “FAQ: Can a local government destroy a paper original after scanning?

  1. Hi. Will you please address destroying originals after scanning as it pertains to state agencies? Thanks!

  2. Thank you for posting this! I feel like it will help those non RM people better understand where I’m coming from when I question why they are wanting to destroy certain things.

  3. This is great information. Thank you for the offer to provide guidance on this issue to state agencies. I would like to take you up on that!

  4. Thanks for the great feedback! Ann and Lori, I will get to work on adapting this for state agencies pronto and shoot for a publication date of next week. Thanks for your interest!

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