FAQ: Why should I purge electronic records that have met retention?

Shredded hard drives

Yes, hard drives can be shredded!

Let’s say you have records that you keep in both paper and electronic formats. Their disposition date arrives, so you go through the necessary steps to check whether you can dispose of the records. You verify that they’re not archival. You’ve checked with your legal and financial departments, so you know there isn’t any impending litigation or audit concerning the records. And nobody has put in an open records request for the records. So, that means you get to destroy them! After filling out your disposition log, you merrily take the paper records to the shred bin in your office. Boom. Done. Records destroyed.

But what about the electronic versions? Did you remember to destroy them too? Or maybe you think it’s a good idea to keep the electronic copies, just in case of…well, who knows, but your colleagues might need to reference those records sometime, and you could be the one to save the day! And they take up a lot less room than filing cabinets do, so what’s the harm in keeping them?

I have a history and archives background, so I totally understand the urge to keep something “just in case.” Plus, modern technology makes it so easy to hold on to documents. But here are a few reasons why you should be purging electronic records on a regular basis:

Cost reduction

When you have several filing cabinets taking up space in your office, it’s easy to see that storing records costs money.  On the other hand, electronic records take up much less physical space than those filing cabinets, so it’s hard to actually see those records costing you anything. However, data storage is usually charged by volume. That means that if you have terabytes of records that are past retention, then that’s terabytes of data that you’re needlessly paying to store somewhere.

Risk reduction

If the records in question are subject to an open records request, litigation, or an audit, then you MUST produce those electronic records, even if you’ve destroyed the original paper versions. You might think that those electronic records were just convenience copies – and hey, convenience copies aren’t records, right? Well, convenience copies become record copies once the record copies (in this case, paper) are destroyed. Also, destroying electronic records on a regular basis looks a lot better (to a judge and to the public) than suddenly getting rid of a lot of records all at once. The latter might be perfectly innocent – for example, you’re running out of server space so you decide to purge thousands of records that are past their retention period – but it can look suspicious.


You know how a computer works really well when it’s brand new? It runs smoothly and it’s fast.  Then, over time, it starts to slow down, and it has some bumps and hiccups every now and then. That’s because the system now has to deal with more software and more data in general. Think of it like a filing cabinet. A filing cabinet is really easy to use when it’s new and not filled with too many folders. The drawers glide open easily and you can take files out or put them back in with no problem. Plus, it’s easy to find what you’re looking for because you can see all the labels clearly and there aren’t a lot of old, useless files in the way.  Well, what happens when one of those drawers fills up? Let’s look at the process of trying to retrieve, say, a folder of timesheets from 2011:

overstuffed files

  • The drawer doesn’t open as easily. Folders are getting caught and you kind of have to shimmy the drawer open back and forth, but finally, it opens. But you were kind of worried for a moment there that you might break the drawer.
  • You can’t see the folder labels because all the folders are packed in so tightly.
  • You pull (and pull, and tug, hoping you don’t rip anything in the process) a folder out, hoping it’s the right one…and instead, it’s timesheets from 2003. Why are you keeping those? It’s way past retention and is just getting in the way!
  • You try to put the folder back, but it’s nearly impossible to cram it in. So then you have to leave the folder out, leaving more of a mess than what you started with.
  • You end up having to remove all the folders of timesheets from 2003-2010 just to get to that one 2011 Timesheets folder.
  • Overall, you’ve just wasted a few minutes and expended a lot of energy trying to find one measly file. What happens when you need to retrieve 20 files for an open records request?

Now, go back to the computer-as-filing cabinet metaphor. The more “stuff” that’s on it, the harder it is for you and the computer to retrieve what you need. It’ll be slower and fussier, and if you perform a search, you’ll get a lot of irrelevant results. Or, you might have to browse through a really messy shared drive (Purging files is essential to maintaining an organized shared drive, as we discuss in our Shared Drive Management webinar.). Again, you’ll end up frustrated at the time you’ve wasted looking for the records you need while finding a bunch of old records you definitely don’t need. But if you’re getting rid of electronic records on a regular basis, then your computer will work more like it did when it was brand new. Plus, your staff will be able to work more easily with those electronic files if they don’t have to wade through hundreds or thousands of files that are past retention.


Electronic hoarding is an issue for many organizations, but it can be overcome with cooperation and communication between your colleagues. For example, maybe you’ll decide to implement a document management system that would notify you that certain records are ready for disposition. (Side note: If you are interested in such a system, we will be presenting a webinar on the topic in January! Stay tuned to the blog for more details.) That would be a good opportunity to start building a relationship with your IT department so that you choose a system with both RM and IT interests in mind. It’s a win-win situation for your entire organization, because regular disposition of electronic records benefits everybody by making operations less expensive and more efficient. What’s not to love? The only thing you have to lose is records that are past retention!

8 thoughts on “FAQ: Why should I purge electronic records that have met retention?

  1. Thank you! I enjoy your lessons – it helps me to grow in knowledge and to remember important aspects that can easily be washed away by the fear of destroying documents. Just wanted to let you know i read your writings and will continue and long as you share your wisdom!

  2. Awesome article! I have a request, can I submit this article to publish on our ARMA San Antonio Newsletter for January or February 2014? We have to get permission before we can publish.

    If so, will you email it to me. Thanks!

  3. Great article Marianna! I love your reference to an overstuffed filing cabinet slowing down operations. I hope more records management officers and records liaisons take notice and take action after reading this article. Thank you for your efforts!

  4. Has this webinar been scheduled? If so, where might I find information?

    From the article..
    “…maybe you’ll decide to implement a document management system that would notify you that certain records are ready for disposition. (Side note: If you are interested in such a system, we will be presenting a webinar on the topic in January!”

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