The Use of Permanent as a Retention Designation

By Carl Weise posted 04-15-2011 15:07


I would like to see the term Permanent removed from our vocabulary.

The problem with the term Permanent is that it is very nebulous – it’s hard to know what it really means.

I have received responses – make it Permanent, please leave my office, suggesting that it means that managers and staff don’t know what they are doing and they don’t care. I have received similar responses suggesting that it meant you can do whatever you want with the records after I am no longer with the organization.

Perhaps, I have had too much time on my hands, but I wondered if it meant till the end of civilization or, perhaps, the destruction of the planet earth. I did see an article, years ago, in The Wall Street Journal in which a researcher obtained federal government funding to determine the life of the planet earth. His finding was 400 million years. I was really excited because I could change Permanent to that period of time. If you want to use this number in your retention schedule now, you should really deduct roughly 15 years from it.

So, not only do we need a definition of “record” in your records management policy but we should add a definition for “Permanent”.

I have heard from individuals that the term Permanent is actual found in the statutes themselves. I have done considerable legal research and, in fact, the word permanent is there. Generally, in the form of “these permanent records will be retained for 5, 10” or whatever the stipulated period of time is.

As professionals, I don’t think we can ignore the practical implications of this retention designation. I found it interesting, years ago, when a corporate department wanted to retain their records Permanently, but would not pay several thousands of dollars to have boxes of records catalogued so they could actually retrieve the records.

I would accept that the federal government wants to retain the Declaration of Independence permanently because they have spent a substantial amount of money to try to do just that.

It is clear that there will be substantial costs in retaining large numbers of boxes of records and storing large volumes of electronic records on servers with the associate hardware, software and migration costs. I think the first consideration is that there needs to be someone willing and able to pay the costs.

From this, I feel that the longest retention period you can have is Life of Legal Entity. This does not mean any shorter period time – both businesses and government entities want to be around for a long period of time, but it addresses the practical issue of who is going to pay the expenses.

Some students have pointed out that there are a few statutes they require the businesses to retain records when the companies no longer exist – third-party income tax preparers are one such group. In these rare cases, the businesses could set up a fund to support future costs of retaining the records and, perhaps, the salary of a person to watch over them and deal with the government enquiries or investigations. At the same time, I am watching the case law to see if these laws are even enforceable.

What I am saying is that, as professional records management professionals, we need to remove nebulous terms from our vocabulary and address the practical implications of our retention policies.

What are your thoughts on this subject? 

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