Death of a Sentencer: A Records Manager’s Lament

At its most fundamental, the job of a professional records and information manager involves being able to sentence records for destruction. There have been many occasions when the frustrations and challenges of the job have left me wondering that I was the one being sentenced. So, you think the basic job of cleaning up information isn’t deadly work? Here’s proof.

First there are the physical challenges. When you’re up a ladder in the vault, moving stuff around on the top shelf of the compactus and the shelving starts to give way. You will hear me scream, I promise!

Then there was the time they placed my desk at the back wall of the same vault allegedly for efficiency, and so I didn’t need to adhere to the “clean desk” policy.  We promise will check you’re not still at your desk before we shut and lock the vault for the night, they said.  GULP!  I made sure I knew how to open the vault door from the inside as a precaution, just in case.

My query about the halogen gas fire retardant used in the same vault resulted in reassurances that the alarm would sound five seconds before releasing the gas.  It didn’t.

Wearing white gloves, a face mask and with an industrial air purifier to cope with the paper mites, cockroaches, mould and diesel dust makes it look like I am on a crime scene. But no, it’s just hardcopy sentencing.

The physical hazards are one thing, but how about the mental?  The stress of coping with “recordkeeping resistance” by the average user can frustrate me no end.

“Who needs an EDRMS when you can use a share drive!” Um, where do I start in responding to that overused cliché.

Particularly when staff are given no limit to the number of folders they may create and duplicate – leading to the creation of 15 folder levels and the document titles in the lowest folders are reduced to three characters and will not open or be renamed. Aaargh!

Emails are saved as per policy, but their attachments aren’t and “see attached” is a cute little icon within the email – I can seethere was an attachment but certainly can’t read it.  Enquiries reveal that the original email system had been decommissioned because ALL the emails were filed on the share drive as per policy.

If a folder is in the approved structure/tree and has an official file title – you’ll discover its merely jottings, ideas or even brainstorming for the official document which is filed somewhere else.

Consequently, if it is in the ‘common area’ and has a crappy looking folder with a crappy file title – you’ll discover it’s the only version of an official document.

Remember one person’s ‘crap’ is another person’s ‘important’ record.  And both individual definitions are used as folder titles – ‘important crap’ sums it up best.

Or how about finding folders with identical titles containing the same documents all identically titled and of the same size, but in fact they are a completely different set of documents and not merely a version of the same folder/documents, which consequently means ICT could not attempt to remove the duplicates because it was way too risky.  Same same but different.

That sense of déjà vu just won’t go away – I’m sure I’ve moved this folder, I’m sure I appraised that document, this looks familiar… But I start taking snapshots of folders and I find ONE set of folders/documents duplicated NINE times, each time down one level.

It is said it’s best to laugh than to cry at misfortune, so I begin to develop a type of shorthand in substitution for file naming conventions:

  • Any titles with the words ‘drafts’, ‘final drafts’ and ‘draft final’ – means ‘it’s a draft’
  • Any titles with the words ‘old’, ‘archive’, ‘don’t use’ and ‘stuff’ – means ‘we might need this one day’
  • Any titles with the words ‘Final FINAL’, ‘use this one’, ‘this is it’ – means ‘it’s final but it could be a final working draft, you just never know’.
  • However, a document with ‘FINAL’ written in the title will be watermarked ‘DRAFT’ as nobody really knows for sure if it’s a final or a draft or the final draft or the draft final so let’s keep it anyway.
  • If a document title contains a person’s name/initials, they are passive aggressive about THEIR amendments so don’t you DARE think about fixing that title because it’s THEIR work and they’ll lodge an official complaint.
  • If a folder title contains a person’s name in the title, you can be sure that their manager is micro-managing and wants to know everything their staff is doing.  So, you’ll find multiple copies of the same document in each person’s folder as they all work on the same document at the same time for the same meeting!  Don’t ask which one of these documents is the official record and it’s best to file each one safely because you don’t want an official complaint lodged against you, do you now?
  • Staff will spell out commonly known acronyms and then create their own acronyms for common words especially if it can be shortened to ‘ass’ – assorted, associated, assistant, assurance, assertion, assignment… don’t make an ass out of the records assessor please!

Navigating through a blizzard of user files can result in some challenges when you find stuff you shouldn’t have. You can see it in their eyes, the PII panic when management realise you have been reading information they have completely forgotten about – yes deep dark unstructured data.  However, they don’t realise that it’s not a breach if I merely find the information. 

The problem arises when the organisation’s new PII policy and procedure means the inadvertently discovered information must now be sent to three managers and possibly even an EA to allow removal, meaning it’s now shared more widely than ever before.  In my line of work, discretion is an asset – deal with it, don’t divulge.

As someone who has undertaken many sentencing projects, remember it’s not just about the bytes, it’s all about the documents you need to view and how long it will take to view them. Any statistics you are given about the scale of the job won’t include the hidden and system files, nor the number of individual documents within zipped files, nor those files stored on USBs or that database they transfer half-way through the project/contract nor the corrupt documents nor documents created on non-compliant software that you can’t open and appraise and therefore remains ‘uncompleted’ and held against you.

You’ll push yourself to appraise 40,000 documents in one day, this can be done effectively if it’s the same record type with a decent (and correct) file title however if it’s different record type with an ambiguous title, you’ll need to read the document to appraise it and that is painfully time consuming.  They’ll suggest you use this new software to search for each document and make the process faster, but you’ll still need to open and close the document to appraise it thereby slowing down the process.  You cannot and should not sentence by title alone (see point above about ICT and duplicates).

It’s metadata madness when all you have is the document properties to use as the metadata and you’re asked to set the retention date on the last time the document was opened as indicted by the modification date.  However, they don’t realise that you need to open the document to appraise it thereby changing the modification date!

So, you’ve got an official EDRMS. Does that mean it’s all simple and straightforward? Well that depends.

Imagine you’re faced with a standard operating procedure (SOP) which states that you need to change the Records Authority (RA) class to 0 (yes zero) before you can delete the file because the EDRMS doesn’t work properly because of “too many band aids”.  As the EDRMS doesn’t work properly, you discover that the box numbers (aka containers) are no longer relevant so you must use a spreadsheet to update the material so they can destroy files via the boxes that they are stored in.  And don’t forget to change the class to 0 first or we can’t destroy the files in the EDRMS. And don’t forget to add the correct information to the spreadsheet, so we know which box we’re destroying …

While the files had been appraised, sentenced and boxed prior to the transfer, were they appraised/sentenced by year of disposal?  Nope, they were just dumped into boxes willy nilly and then sent off-site.  This means the disposal years are all different for all the various files held within each box and please don’t forget to use the spreadsheet for the box numbers.

Then I find out they don’t use a barcode reader, so I need to type in the barcodes into a spreadsheet for each file boxed. 

“Don’t forget to add the file numbers and the titles as well plus disposal year into the spreadsheet which we’ll store in a file held in the EDRMS.”

Spreadsheets are handy, aren’t they?

It’s just more metadata madness when all you have as the EDRMS’ trigger is the ‘last action date’ which is set to be anymodification to the file. However, I need to modify the metadata to the file as part of sentencing process thereby changing the modification date to today.

Sometimes it gets too much, and I’ve cried at my desk:

  • in frustration – the document file title was too long and wouldn’t open because it was 14 folder levels down. I was able to open it by shortening every title of every folder then opened the document and appraised it as Normal Administrative Procedures (NAP) – all that effort for nothing!
  • in disappointment – I redid what I did and did it again and again and again and again as back up tapes were the only form of audit, QA and assurance.  Thereby entire folders of information were reinstated when a single document went missing.  Interestingly staff couldn’t remember who wrote the document nor what it was called or where it was stored but knew they saw that document a few months ago somewhere….
  • in exasperation – a decade’s worth of records that were quarantined as Retained as National Archives (RNA) were moved into a personal folder by a manager who thought that the information was ‘useful to have’ which meant these records simply disappeared from the corporate directory.  When they were reported missing by myself, the records were reinstated from back-up tapes dated PRIOR to my commencement date thereby wiping out two years of completed sentencing work.  (And wait for it, management wondered by my statistics were crap that month.)
  • in irritation – 100K inactive records marked for disposal under NAP were moved in their entirety into a current active folder all because staff member though ‘they might come in handy one day’ (they were decades old duplications)
  • in defeat – you’ve got an EDRMS, can you use it properly – train staff at all levels – PLEASE
  • in sadness – appraising permission forms for the disposal of invalid embryos, a coroner’s report, a missing in action telegram, a plea for assistance from a member of the public for their child – Sentencers read everything and we are human after all

It wasn’t a policy, a process or a procedure that destroyed me, rather the never-ending battle against inefficiency that caused the death of this Sentencer.

Lynda Leigh is an experienced records and information manager who now provides consulting expertise to businesses, community organisations and individuals who need short-term or ongoing assistance for records management, office administration and office organisation.

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