21 February 2006

Records management

Finding documentation in a digital world can be a challenge.

These days, email, Word documents, Acrobat files and the internet contain most if not all of the “records” of an organisation. Registry is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and paper documents rarely get on to official files in an institution-wide, properly managed way.

While the new ways of communicating information are far more efficient, finding information about what happened last week, last year or five years ago is more difficult, particularly if the staff concerned have moved on. Most “records” reside on the hard drives of staff, in their Home directories on servers or more than likely in their email messages (if they haven’t deleted them).

One particular issue in relation to managing the organisation’s records in the digital age is the production of these records in response to legal “requests”. While in the past it was just a matter of handing over some files, diaries and notes, and talking to a few people, these days emails, electronic diaries, even Instant Messaging sessions are all “requested” when the lawyers come calling.

On receiving a written authorisation from the PVC, the Division will provide all requested documents, emails, and other records from server-based Home directories and email accounts, provided they are still there (haven’t been erased or overwritten). While backups of network drive stored data are available, these have been created for disaster recovery and not for archiving purposes. It would probably not be possible, for example, using the current backup materials, to produce a document as it was stored on a particular day, if it had been modified subsequently. Should we be required to use backups to provide data to the courts, we would need to redesign our backup strategies and systems in order to be able to comply easily with such requests. It would add significant costs to our current operations if we were to rebuild the backup system as an archive.

Recovering information from local hard disk drives is more problematic, especially if someone has left the Division, since hard disks are usually erased and set up for a new user. When computers are decommissioned for sale or disposal, part of the process is to effectively remove all data from the hard drive, or in some cases the hard drive itself is removed and destroyed. The Division does not backup (or archive) local hard drives. Some individuals may backup their own data, but there is usually no official access to these backups.

The Division should seek expert advice, preferably at the University level through the UIMSC, on whether the current arrangements are adequate, and if not give the Technical Services Unit guidance on how to change its current practices in order to be able to comply with legitimate requests for access to electronic records.