Of all the FAQs we get, this might be the most FAQiest of them all! Both local governments and state agencies want to know if they ‘go paperless’—if they digitize their essential records—can they get rid of the original paper or film copies?
Records management laws and rules applicable to state agencies and local governments do allow for records to be kept electronically in addition to, or instead of, physical copies. This is great news to most people we talk to, but keep reading for the caveats.
For state agencies, the authority to store records electronically is found in Tex. Gov’t Code §441.189(a), which can be referenced in the Bulletin 4: State Records Management Laws:
“Any state record may be created or stored electronically in accordance with standards and procedures adopted as administrative rules of the commission as authorized by Texas Government Code §441.189.”
Those administrative rules are published as State Bulletin 1 and in Sec. 6.92(4), the definition of an electronic record, you will find that same language giving agencies the ability to store electronically.
For local governments, the authority to store electronically is found in Section 205.002 of Bulletin D: Local Government Records Act:
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.
Like with the state authority, local governments can find their applicable citation within Bulletin B: Electronic Records Standards and Procedures, which provides those rules and requirements referred to in the law.
Keep in mind that once a record is digitized, it must be accessible and maintained for the full life-cycle of the record and minimum retention period, which can be forever in the case of permanent records.
State Agency Rules
Bulletin 1: Electronic Records Standards and Procedures outlines the minimum requirements in Section 6.94 which state agencies must ensure for their electronic records, including, but not limited to:
(1) Manage electronic state records according to the state agency’s records management program and certified records retention schedule regardless of format, system, or storage location;
(4) Ensure that electronic state records remain readily retrievable and readable for as long as they are maintained by the state agency by migration or by maintaining any software, hardware, and documentation required to retrieve and read the electronic state records;
(6) Preserve the authenticity, integrity, reliability, and usability of the records;
(9) Require all third-party custodians of records to provide the state agency with descriptions of their business continuity and/or disaster recovery plans as regards to the protection of the state agency’s vital state records.Check out the full list of requirements in Bulletin 1
Additionally, Section 6.95 provides for additional record requirements for archival, permanent, and vital electronic state records. Speaking of archival state records, the Texas Digital Archive accepts state records in electronic format. Check out our previous interview with TSLAC’s Electronic Records Specialist.
Local Government Rules
Bulletin B: Electronic Records Standards and Procedures contains statutes (Local Gov. Code, Chapter 205) as well as the administrative rules, 13 TAC Chapter 7, that are applicable to 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. 7.74 for electronic records, Sec. 7.77 for electronic systems)
- You have an electronic records security program (Sec. 7.75)
- Storage media is maintained in the right environmental conditions and is being recopied on a set schedule (Sec. 7.76)
- The scanning conforms to industry standards and is done at the right resolution (Sec. 7.76)
- A visual quality control check is performed on at least a 10% of doucments (Sec. 7.76)
- The record-keeping system that holds the records does not provide an impediment to public access (Sec. 7.77)
Other Legal Obligations and Considerations
We recommend that any conversion from paper to electronic should be run by any affected parties, like the auditors, or the federal or state agency to which the document is being submitted. Ours is not the only government agency tasked with setting rules that affect records management.
Otherwise, how long a local government or state agency retains an original after scanning is up to them. In general, we give a soft recommendation of at least 6 months before shredding the paper copies. We also emphasize the importance of doing the visual quality control check on a representative sample of documents to make sure that they are complete representations of the original.
And, it depends!
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to scan everything. The initiative to go paperless isn’t to get rid of all the paper, but instead to decrease the volume of paper that is necessary to manage. It’s not cost-efficient or best practice to just scan everything and keep only electronic copies.
Some records may (or should) be kept in the original physical format based on historical, financial or legal value. We believe that paper still has a place in records management. We understand how much extra work it is to determine which records to focus the effort on, but just think of the sunk costs involved in spending time and money digitizing records that will be disposed soon or could have been disposed years ago.
Also, when it comes to very old bound books, for example, it’s not that we place high importance on having the original delicate book in your hands, but it’s about the economic feasibility of the digitization project. You have a budget and it could be a waste of money to digitize books that must be kept permanently regardless of anybody’s interest in them. Be sure to read the article “Why Isn’t Everything in the Archives Available Online?” in our agency’s companion blog, Out of the Stacks.
Prioritize Scanning Projects
I recently had a question from a county clerk—an office that has to manage a lot of essential permanent records—about a few different types of long-term records she was considering digitizing. I explained that the county’s naturalization records (CC1750-03) would be a good start because they have high value to citizens, so digitizing those to make them more accessible would be worth it, in my opinion. Records related to land ownership, I’d give a strong maybe… obviously if there is any dispute over land rights it would be helpful to have those records easily accessible, but even then not ALL land records should be prioritized for digitization. Last, I would rate attorneys’ receipt books (CC1650-03) pretty low priority for getting digitized because, no offense to attorneys, but it just doesn’t seem like a record that would meet the definition of essential record in the Local Gov. Records Act.
Similar evaluation and analysis of records can be made for state agencies as well, and The Texas State Library and Archives Commission can certainly help your agency determine archival values in order to decide which records to focus your digitization efforts.
So think about what is most likely to be requested from your office; your approach might be to prioritize based on anticipated use. If no one has asked for redemption record books (CC1375-09) for so long that the brittle pages are falling apart from age (rather than being worn out), then those might be lower priority and could instead be sealed up for physical storage according to the rules in Bulletin F.
Once you have digitized permanent or long-term records, you’ll need to ensure the longevity of those electronic records despite challenges in technological advancements.
- Bulletin 1 Resources was developed to be a growing list of links to general e-records guidance and sample policies from other states as well as Texas. It was created to piggy-back on State Bulletin 1, but it’s also useful for local governments. Some specific topics include destruction, long-term digital preservation, social media and text messaging.
- Check out our 2-part webinar, Strategies for Preserving Electronic Records, which discusses the goals, challenges, and strategies involved in digital preservation.
- We also have an updated Disposition 101 webinar for state and local government records managers who are new to the field or just need a refresher.