FAQ: Can a state agency destroy a paper original after scanning?

By Angela Ossar, Government Information Analyst

Our last Featured Question addressed the question of source document destruction for local governments. (Available here.) Here, we adapt the response for state agencies.

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? 

I answer this question for local governments so often that I actually keep a template in my email account for answering it, making minor tweaks to match the question. I believe I’ve only answered the question for state agencies a handful of times, so this one took a little more research.

Nevertheless, after reviewing the applicable state agency rules (published on our website as Bulletin 1 and Bulletin 4), I find that the answer is about the same: it’s still “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: Non-Archival Records

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. Section 441.189, Government Code, says:

Section 441.189. Electronic State Records

(a) Any state record may be created or stored electronically in accordance with standards and procedures adopted as administrative rules of the commission.

Not only may state records be stored electronically, but they must be accepted as original state records unless the law, another agency’s regulation, or rule of court prohibits it:

(b) Certified output from electronically digitized images or other electronic data compilations created and stored in accordance with the rules of the commission shall be accepted as original state records by any court or administrative agency of this state unless barred by a federal law, regulation, or rule of court.

But…

You need to be prepared to take care of that electronic record once you scan it. Those “rules of the commission” are published as State Bulletin One (13 TAC 6.91-6.97). Here’s what a state agency has to ensure:

  • A visual quality control check is performed on every document (Sec. 6.96(f)(4))
  • The scanning conforms to ANSI/AIIM standards and is done at the right resolution (Sec. 6.96)
  • Up-to-date technical documentation is kept (Sec. 6.92(b)(6))
  • The agency has an electronic records security program (Sec. 6.92(b)(7))
  • Storage media is maintained in the right environmental conditions, is being recopied on a set schedule, and is labeled with all required information  (Sec. 6.96)

And those are just TSLAC’s rules. We further give the caveat that an agency needs to run the conversion to “paperless” by any affected parties, like the agency’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.

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

Source Document Destruction: Archival Records

Remember what Government Code Section 441.189 said: any state record may be created or stored electronically. Other parts of Bulletin One give the rules for taking care of that data, as discussed above.

Bulletin One also indicates that storing archival electronic records — those with archival code A or an R on your records retention schedule (I or O if you are a state university) are going to require some extra effort:

Section 6.95. Final Disposition of Electronic Records

(b) An electronic state record that is an archival record must be maintained by the agency through hardware and software migrations and upgrades as authentic evidence of the state’s business in accessible and searchable form, except as otherwise determined by the state archivist.

What does that mean?  It means state agencies have two options for preserving an electronic record.  The first is to perpetually migrate (recopy/reformat/convert) data out of old systems and into new systems. Every time you upgrade your hardware, software, operating system, or storage media, you have to make sure that all of your data migrates over into the new system — that not so much as a pixel is lost — and is just as accessible and readable as it was in the old system. Every time you perform such a migration, there is a small risk of data loss.

Alternatively, agencies may establish what is lovingly referred to as a “computer museum.” That means, every time you upgrade, you keep all of the hardware, software, and documentation you used to create that record. That option tends to not be cost-effective as it can be hard (and expensive) to find adequate tech support for obsolete machines and software.

But wait. If it’s an archival record, can’t an agency just transfer it to the State Archives?

At this time, no.

“If the commission,” says Section 441.186(e), Government Code (the “commission” being us, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission) “cannot accept immediate custody of an archival state record, the record shall remain in the custody of the state agency and shall be preserved in accordance with this subchapter, rules adopted under this subchapter,” etc.

Well, unfortunately, the Commission indeed cannot accept immediate custody of an electronic record because it does not have a repository for electronic state records. That means that each agency has to keep and manage its own archival electronic records until the State Archives does have an electronic records repository.

How much do you know about the long-term preservation of electronic records?  Unfortunately, most state agency records managers are not also experts in long-term digital preservation. Even though there are rules in place to try to ensure that electronic records are accessible, usable, and authentic for their full retention period, they are not a substitute for education and training (or professional archives staff).

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

So what do we do?

Educate yourself on digital preservation and ask your analyst how TSLAC can help. We developed a 2-part introductory webinar series on digital preservation to help records managers understand this issue. 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.

We are available to consult with state agencies face-to-face in Austin, or via phone and email to any Texas government agency, on considering records management when moving to an all-digital or hybrid (paper and digital) system. 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 Bulletin One.

2 thoughts on “FAQ: Can a state agency destroy a paper original after scanning?

  1. Yes, assuming you are talking about RRS 1.1.058 (Meeting Agenda and Minutes), which has a permanent retention period and is also archival, then all of the rules and recommendations given in this article would apply.

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