By Georgen Gilliam Charnes
The NHA Research Library collects and preserves materials that record the history of Nantucket Island. Among the many kinds of materials in our collections are records of clubs and small organizations. Social, charitable, and business groups were an important part of island life in the nineteenth century and continue to be important today. Loss of their records means a loss of history. Although I worry about the records being lost, I know that the NHA doesn’t have room to store them. We therefore urge small organizations or clubs to create and maintain their own archives.
If you work in a small organization or are an officer of a club, you know that there’s always a lot of paper involved – sometimes far too much. File cabinets quickly become filled to overflowing, people store things in various places, and inevitably it’s hard to find things. Getting masses of information into order is daunting, but the benefits of following an adequate records-management program far outweigh the costs in time and aggravation. An archive or collection of non-current administrative materials provides historical information for your organization when needed and also serves as a resource for its legal and administrative needs.
The first step in establishing a records-management plan is to make it a priority. Keep copies of correspondence, publicity materials, minutes, bylaws, grant proposals, fundraising letters, and news clippings for your organization’s archive. Make sure that all incoming staff and board members understand that records created by them in the course of doing business belong to the organization and should be transferred to the archive when no longer actively used. Make sure photographs are identified on the back by place, time, function, and full names of individuals (use archival-quality labels if necessary to prevent bleed-through or pen pressure damage).
Next, consider how to organize your old records for easy access. Records of organizations are generally arranged by the office that created them, not by subject or content. Files from the publications office, for example, are stored together, with the oldest being transferred to the archive periodically. One important filing practice that is easy to institute is to “break” a file every year, which means starting a new folder for each year. For example, a file with publicity materials may be broken into “Publicity materials 2003,” “Publicity materials 2004,” etc. It’s easier then to transfer old materials out of your file cabinets and into the archive.
An archive not only retains materials, but also presents a method of discarding them. Not everything should be kept permanently. Each organization should set up a calendar of disposal called a records retention schedule. A simple example follows:
- Retain permanently: annual meeting programs, directories, constitutions, bylaws, financial audits, funded grant proposals, minutes of meetings, news releases and clippings, photographs, publicity materials, director’s correspondence, project files, subject files, donor lists, and personnel files
- Retain 30 years: Payroll files, ledgers
- End-of-grant plus 7 years: Grant files
- Retain 7 years: Bank statements, cancelled checks, time sheets, purchase orders
- Retain 3 years: Event-planning files, job announcements, receipts, bills, expense reports, quarterly budget reports
Your organization will have its own particular kinds of records and will make decisions based on its needs. A records-management consultant might be called on if you need assistance in establishing your own system. A little thought and a little organizational effort will help your organization establish its own archive and help to preserve its own history.
Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004.