Minnesota  State Archives

Electronic Records Management Guidelines

Electronic Records Management Strategy


The arrival of the Information Age means that much of our history is now recorded in electronic format, including your agency’s activities. Because of that, you need to develop a strategy for managing electronic records. A government agency’s electronic records management strategy must conform to legal mandates, as well as reflect your preferred management practices and technological options.

When you begin to develop your electronic records management strategy, you should aim for a policy that integrates:

  • The legal framework as it applies to your agency
  • All interested stakeholders (e.g., record creators, the public, information technology staff, records management staff)
  • All relevant aspects of your electronic records
  • Your preferred management procedures and technologies
  • Long-term storage and access needs (both legal and operational)

A sound, integrated strategy reflects the relationship between records management and your operations, and ensures that you manage records in a way that supports your daily work, supports long-term operational needs, and meets your legal requirements.

Because different stakeholders throughout an enterprise have different needs and roles in electronic records management, the development of your electronic records management strategy requires joint planning, communication, and training.


Legal Framework
Your strategy must conform to the legal mandates in such areas as:

  • Providing public accountability

  • Distinguishing public from not-public records

  • Creating records retention schedules and carrying out disposal actions

  • Developing and sustaining a trustworthy process for electronic records management

Refer to the Legal Framework chapter for more information on legal mandates and legal frameworks in general.


Key Concepts

As you develop an electronic records management strategy, you will need to be familiar with the following key concepts:


Definition of a Record

The Records Management Act defines government records as:

Cards, correspondence, disks, maps, memoranda, microfilms, papers, photographs, recordings, reports, tapes, writings, optical disks, other data, information, or documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, storage media or conditions of use, made or received by an officer or agency of the state and an officer or agency of a county, city, town, school district, municipal subdivision or corporation or other public authority or political entity within the state pursuant to state law or in connection with the transaction of public business by an officer or agency.

In short, an official record includes all information, regardless of format, created or used in the course of a government business function or transaction.

The definition excludes:

  • Library and museum material made or acquired and kept solely for reference or exhibit purposes
  • Extra copies of documents maintained only for the convenience of reference
  • Stock of publications and processed documents
  • Bonds, coupons, or other obligation or evidence of indebtedness, the destruction or other disposition of which is governed by other laws
  • An electronic record is a record created, generated, sent, communicated, received, or stored by electronic means. Like paper records, electronic records require a long-term records management strategy.


Record Series

Your electronic records are organized into records series. A records series is a set of records grouped together because they relate to a particular subject or function, or result from the same activity. All records fall into a records series, and each records series should be managed according to an appropriate records retention schedule.

By managing related records as a group, you can efficiently preserve and dispose of your records. For example, all records (regardless of format) relating to a particular committee’s activity on a single issue may constitute a records series that must be preserved for some length of time before disposition.

Your agency will need to organize its own records series based on its unique needs within the legal framework.


Record Components

The components of any record include:

  • Content. Factual information in the record that documents government business

  • Context. Information that shows how the record is related to the business of the agency and other records

  • Structure. Technical characteristics of the record (e.g., file format, data organization, page layout, hyperlinks, headers, footnotes)


Records Continuum

Aside from reflecting your legal requirements, a successful long-term records management strategy reflects the records management continuum.

The records continuum concept is the idea that different stakeholders create, use, manage, and retain records, not in discrete stages, but at different points throughout the record’s existence. The continuum concept recognizes that records pass through identifiable stages; however, these stages are reference points, not separate functions. In other words, a record is not simply created, passed to a records manager for short-term storage, and then passed to an archivist for long-term storage. Instead, each person’s activities will have an effect on all the others in the continuum. Their roles and responsibilities should be coordinated, not organized autonomously.

The continuum concept outlines four actions that recur throughout the life of a record. These actions are:

  • Identification. Determining what constitutes a record

  • Intellectual control. Making decisions about the record

  • Provision of access. Enabling users to access the records

  • Physical control. Managing the physical location and format of the record

Each person who touches the record performs one or all of these activities. For example, the records creator, records manager, and archivist all manage the physical location of the record. Therefore, all these people should collaborate on a comprehensive and well-managed electronic records management strategy.


Records Management Goals

Although the specific strategy that your agency develops and implements will be unique, all strategies share common goals. No matter what your final strategy, the records that exist in your agency should be:

  • Trustworthy. Trustworthy records contain information that is reliable and authentic. A key aspect to trustworthiness is legal admissibility, i.e., whether your records will be accepted as evidence in court.
  • Complete. Your records should have all the information necessary to ensure their long-term usefulness. You will also need to capture and maintain the necessary metadata about your records. Metadata is the “data about the data” that documents the relationship of the record to your agency’s activity and to other records. Metadata ensures that you can find and use your records. Metadata includes such elements as the record’s creator, the date of creation, and the record series to which the record belongs.  (For more information on metadata, refer to the Metadata chapter in these guidelines).
  • Accessible. You should be able to locate and access your records in a way that meets your needs and the needs of all other concerned parties. Some records may need to be immediately accessible, while others may not. As outlined in the MGDPA, records are assumed to be accessible to the public, unless categorized as not-public by the statute.
  • Durable. You also want to ensure that your records are durable. In other words, they must be accessible for the designated records retention period and stored, as appropriate, “on a physical medium of a quality to ensure permanent records,” as stated in the Official Records Act [Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 15.17]. For more information on records storage, refer to the following chapters in these guidelines:
    • Digital Media for more information about digital media options available for electronic record storage
    • Digital Media Storage for information about the physical requirements for storing electronic records

Long-Term Retention Approaches

You have two viable, often compatible, approaches for the long-term retention of your records:

  • Conversion. When you convert a record, you change its file format. Often, conversion takes place to make the record software independent and available in an open or standard format. For example, you can convert a record created in Microsoft Word by saving it as a Rich Text Format (RTF) file or to PDF/A. (For more information on file formats, refer to the File Formats guidelines.)
  • Migration. When you migrate a record, you move it from one computer platform, storage medium, or physical format to another. For example, you may need to migrate records from old magnetic tapes to new ones or to a different medium entirely to ensure continued accessibility.  (For more information on storage media, refer to the Digital Media guidelines.)

As you explore conversion and migration options, consider which media are appropriate for long-term retention. You may discover that another medium altogether (e.g., paper or microfilm) is the best option. You may also determine that you want to combine approaches, such as converting all files to an open format and migrating them to a single platform and storage medium.  (For more information on migration and conversion, refer to the Long-Term Preservation guidelines.)


General Records Retention Schedules

Your electronic records management strategy should include records retention schedules. A records retention schedule is a written document that lists types of records and discusses how long they should be kept and whose purpose it is to serve as an on-going authorization for the management and disposition of records in all forms including paper and electronic records.

Many local government entities, because they have similar office structure and responsibilities, have developed general records retention schedules for all the records commonly created by their members. General records retention schedules exist for state government, cities, townships, school districts, counties, and courts. (Example retention schedules for each can be found on the Minnesota State Archives website.) These general records retention schedules meet the legal requirements for each type of local agency. Your agency can adopt the appropriate general records retention schedules for your type of organization in whole, or in part, or change individual components to create a unique schedule. You may also initially choose to develop a specific schedule for your agency. However, you must submit any proposed changes to the Records Disposition Panel for approval.

(For more information on the Records Disposition Panel, refer to the Legal Framework chapter of these guidelines as well as to the Preserving and Disposing of Government Records.)


Storage Options

Your options for storage include:

  • Online. Properly designed storage in your computer system may provide full access to appropriate users. Online access means that the record is accessible immediately through your network (e.g., on your network server). This option maintains the greatest functionality.
  • Near-line. Near-line storage includes storage in a system that is not a direct part of your network, but that can be accessed through your network (e.g., an optical media jukebox). This option maintains a moderate amount of functionality.
  • Offline. Offline storage refers to storage that is not accessible through your network (e.g., removable media such as magnetic tape). This option retains the least amount of functionality while still maintaining records in an electronic format.
  • Paper or microfilm. Printing records onto archival-quality paper for storage or outputting them to microfilm may be acceptable as long as the complete record, including all components and metadata, is included.


Key Issues to Consider

Now that you are familiar with some key concepts in electronic records management, you can use the questions below as you develop your own strategy. The careful consideration of these questions will help ensure that:

  • All relevant stakeholders agree to the process and are ready to use the procedures outlined in the strategy once it is implemented.
  • The strategy meets your legal requirements, such as public accountability, records retention schedules, and trustworthiness.
  • You maximize efficiency by working with other agencies and gaining from their experience.


Discussion Questions

  • What legal issues do we face? Who will need access to our records (e.g., the public, other government agencies)? Do we have information that must be accessible to the public? Do we have information that is not-public as classified by the MGDPA that must not be disclosed to the public (e.g., social security numbers, adoption records)?
  • Can we adopt one of the general records retention schedules, or do we need to modify or create an agency-specific records retention schedule and seek approval from the Records Disposition Panel?
  • What sort of appraisal process will we use to determine which records to keep? How will we ensure that this process identifies all records as defined by the law?
  • What are the roles of different groups and individuals in our organization in ensuring a coordinated process? How can we facilitate planning, communication, and cooperation among all individuals who create and use the electronic records? What level of control should different individuals and groups have?
  • Can we cooperate with other government agencies to streamline the process and save money or time?
  • What best practices can we identify and apply to our own situation?
  • What is the life cycle of our data? When should we capture records? How can we describe our records continuum? At which phases along our continuum do we need to actively manage the record? Would we benefit from developing a model of our operational process to aid in this discussion?
  • How will we ensure long-term preservation and access? What are our requirements under the law?
  • What are our options for long-term retention? What are the advantages of each option? How would each option work in our particular situation? What is our budget?
  • What technological resources do we have available? How much of our chosen process can we or should we automate?
  • What staff training do we need to ensure the staff complies with the new procedures and policies?
  • What elements of the electronic records do we need to keep (e.g., text content only, graphical appearance, interactivity)?
  • What metadata do we need to collect and preserve?


Electronic Records Management Strategy, Annotated List of Resources  go to Annotated list of resources

Next Chapter, Long-Term Preservation  go to Annotated list of resources


Go to Table of Contents


Electronic Records Management Guidelines, March 2012, Version 5.

Links verified March 13, 2012.