Part 8 - Electronic records

What are electronic records?

8.1.1 Electronic records are those which require a machine to be read. This refers to computer-generated records, and also those stored on visual and aural media such as voicemail systems, DVDs, videotapes, cinematographic film, cassette tapes, compact discs, mini-discs and microforms such as microfiche and microfilm etc.

Benefits of electronic records

  • Technologies such as e-mail, facsimile and conference calling facilitate rapid transmission of documents and information and enable quicker transaction of business.

  • Electronic records are easily amended and updated.

  • Electronic record formats such as geographic information systems, film and sound recordings, add vivid and interesting visual dimensions to written records.

  • Electronic records use space much more efficiently than paper records. For example, a huge database may be stored on a single compact disc but if its contents were printed off or created in a paper format, it would be much more costly in terms of required storage.

  • Paper formats cannot adequately capture some records, for example, a written description will not have the same impact as a film recording.

  • Electronically stored records, specifically those stored on computer, are more easily accessible than those stored on paper.

  • Electronic devices are modern, efficient, streamlined and attractive to users.

  • Computer-generated records, for example, those stored in a database format may generally be retrieved very rapidly.

Challenges advanced by electronic records

8.3.1 Issue 1: Obsolescence

Obsolescence is a concern with both electronic hardware and software. For instance, the prevalence of videotapes is currently being threatened by the emergence of DVDs; floppy disks have changed radically in terms of physical size and capacity in the past decade and have now been outstripped by zip disks and the various types of compact discs that are on the market; the functionality of computer software changes rapidly as new versions come on-stream.


In order to ensure that records continue to be accessible for as long as they are required it is necessary to respond to advances in hardware and software.

  1. Organisations can retain a 'museum of technology', for example, keep computer hardware that runs specific software and records stored on compatible storage mechanisms. This approach is not recommended as over time, records will be stored in numerous and diverse formats. Moreover, as time passes and machines and software become obsolete, it will be difficult to obtain spare parts and necessary maintenance expertise.

  2. An alternative approach that some records managers and archivists employ is storage of computer-generated records in standardised formats. Many do not like this technique as software programs are robbed of their unique features, and all end up with the same appearance.

  3. Electronic records may be printed out in paper and the electronic version neglected or destroyed. This is not recommended as it may very well be unsatisfactory from the perspective of the amount of storage required. In addition to this, paper does not always have the capacity to represent the links that exist between electronic records, or paper cannot graphically represent a relationship between records that is visible onscreen.

  4. The recommended approach to resolution of hardware and software obsolescence is migration of records to new media and software platforms as they come on-stream. For example, computer applications stored in Microsoft Access 97 should now be converted to Microsoft Access 2000; and those stored on cassette tape might be recorded in a digital format, for example, compact disc. If conversion is proposed, care should be taken that the preferred mechanism has a reasonably secure future.

  5. In order to ensure that systems, and the hardware and software used tend toward the long-term survival of records, it is strongly recommended that the advice of the University Archivist be sought prior to systems being designed. This is relevant when it is known that records will in time become archival.

8.3.2 Issue 2: Security

Measures should be implemented to ensure that records stored electronically are secure. Records should be inviolate or tamperproof; secure from unauthorised access and accidental or deliberate removal and alteration. This is particularly important if records are tendered as evidence in a legal case. (Incidentally, an observation that merits mention is that many databases do not fulfil the definition of records, and instead are mere information. Criteria of records are that they must be fixed and linked to a specific business function. Many databases are generic banks of changing information, for example, containing names and other details of contacts or biographical and academic information relating to the student body.


Depending on the records media used, various responses to this issue are necessary.

  1. In general, where vulnerable or fragile records media are concerned, security copies should be made and retained in a secure location.

  2. Computers should be passworded. This should include power-on and e-mail passwords; and where employees are frequently away from their desks and other individuals have access to work areas, screen-saver passwords should be employed. If access to some computer files is limited user permissions should be set up and reinforced with passwords. Incidentally, the University must have access to all records stored on its computer or network systems. This implies that a list of all computer passwords should be compiled and held by the management level staff member responsible for the information and records management system.

  3. Where cassette tapes and videotapes contain records, steps should be taken to ensure that their contents cannot be altered or erased, for example, the tabs on the tapes should be removed.

8.3.3 Issue 3: Technical expertise

In order that the benefits of technology and electronic records are fully exploited, and effectively managed, expertise should be readily available.


  1. All organisations that use electronic records, or co-ordinate information and records management systems via electronic means, should seek to ensure that technical advice is readily available. Expertise should extend to include the full range of electronic records. Computer-generated systems require especial assistance.

  2. In order that employees exploit electronic mechanisms to their fullest extent, training should be provided and keep pace with technological advance.

  3. Some organisations have responded to technology by using it at all available opportunities, sometimes without thought of possible repercussions. For example, some organisations may scan all paper documents and discard originals. The legal admissibility of scanned documents should be ascertained prior to the taking of a step as drastic as discarding signed originals.

8.3.4 Issue 4: Ownership and custody

This section deals with the custody of electronic records. This involves and complicates several other issues. In common with other records, electronic records must be retained for as long as they are required. While this is not problematic where records are only required for a short and defined period of time, some electronic records possess continuing value and will be retained on a permanent basis as archives. In the last few hundred years, archives services, have for the most part, centralised archives, that is, taken custody of them. This tradition has begun to change with reference to electronic records and because of a lack of availability of three resources: money, expertise and time.


It is recognised that custody of electronic records is more time-consuming and problematic than paper records. As time passes, electronic records require migration between hardware and software environments whereas paper will continue to exist unless some disaster befalls it. Moreover, there is uncertainty about the most appropriate methods for the care of electronic records. Prevalent current thinking is that such records should be maintained by the creating agency, and that this entity should be responsible for their continuing care and accessibility. The principal justification for this course of action is that should an archives service, for example, the University Archives, assume custody of electronic records it will lack the necessary time, money and expertise to treat them appropriately. For instance, if the University Archives were to assume responsibility for the migration of electronic records to new software platforms, it would involve constant communication with all units of the University and retention and expertise in all appropriate software. On the other hand, the creating agency would only have to update its own records when systems change. Moreover, a principal justification for retention of archives is provision of access to them by researchers. In this scenario, creating agencies would either supply copies of electronic records to archives services, and the latter would provide access or alternatively, the creating agencies could provide access. This approach has both advantages and disadvantages. An example of the latter is that in a climate where accountability and transparency are paramount, leaving vulnerable electronic records in the custody of those responsible for them is troubling. The thinking behind this is that those most likely to tamper with records in order to cover up negligence, fraud or other criminal activity are those who administered them. A benefit of involving archivists in the custody of records and archives is that members of this profession are, notwithstanding employment by the creating agency, ethically and professionally delimited from the unauthorised, illegal or untimely destruction of records. The question of the retention of electronic records and archives is unresolved. In the future, as the records management framework of the University evolves, the question should be addressed. It should be borne in mind that passing time and negligence are the greatest enemies of electronic records.

8.3.5 Issue 5: System compatability

A frequently encountered problem arises where a hybrid record-keeping system is in operation, that is, one reliant on both paper and electronic mechanisms. A common example would be where incoming correspondence is retained on paper files and outgoing correspondence created electronically is retained in an electronic medium. In order for the record-keeping system to be complete and accurate, there must be links between the paper and electronic systems. If not, information and evidence will be retrieved inaccurately and in an incomplete manner.


  1. One response to this problem is to retain all records electronically in an electronic record-keeping system. Such systems classify, file and sentence records on creation; incoming records can be scanned into the system so that related records are located in the same files; and on a network system, records are accessible to all who require access. This is not feasible at the moment in the context of this office, and so, other solutions must be sought.

  2. The converse response is that, in the absence of an electronic record-keeping system, all (or as many as possible) records are retained in a paper format. Obvious disadvantages of this strategy are that technology is not being exploited and storage problems escalate. However, by retaining all records in a paper format, related records are kept together. Furthermore, taking an unequivocal choice to retain records in a paper format promotes consistency of action. Employees will know that they must print off and file records, and they will not have to try to reconcile paper and electronic records. It is strongly recommended that where possible, and where they merit retention, electronic records are printed off and captured in the record-keeping system.

  3. Where it is not possible for electronic records to be printed off and filed, for example, if a large database application accompanies a paper document, that the existence, location and name of the database is recorded. It is suggested that the database is stored on a computer hard drive or other storage mechanism, and that its existence is recorded on the incoming letter and in the cross-reference field of the database.

8.3.6 Issue 6: Authenticity

Because electronic records may be amended at the touch of a button, for example, overwritten, deleted or altered, it is difficult to prove what the original or authentic record comprised. Alteration of records may have serious legal consequences.


  1. An electronic record-keeping system is the only way to definitively eradicate the problem described above. Electronic record-keeping systems retain drafts and versions of records, thus protecting the original or authentic record. Moreover, electronic record-keeping systems contain an audit function, that is, it is feasible to identify every action taken on records.

  2. Protecting records with passwords and limiting access will help to ensure authenticity.

  3. Printing off the record will 'set' it in a paper format. Changes to paper records are much more obvious than those retained in an electronic medium.

  4. Another reason to print off and file copies of electronically created records is that those stored electronically do not bear signatures. Legally, a signed document is sometimes more satisfactory than one which is unsigned.

Electronic records: general recommendations

  1. In the absence of an electronic record-keeping system, records created and received via electronic avenues, where they merit retention, should be printed off and filed.

  2. When it is not possible to print off and file electronic records, for example, should a sizeable database application accompany a letter, the following procedure should be followed:

    • Existence, name and location of electronic record written on paper record.

    • Paper record filed.

    • Existence, name and location of electronic record recorded in the database which acts as a register of paper files.

    • Electronic record retained on computer hard drive or other computer storage mechanism.

  3. Records stored on floppy disks, compact discs, zip disks etc. should be copied to new media at least every three years.

  4. If there is a danger that media will become obsolete, records should be transferred to a new medium, for example, if DVDs threaten to outstrip videos completely, to the point where hardware is unavailable.

  5. Where new versions of computer software come on the market, files should be updated.

  6. Precautions should be taken to ensure that records are not altered, for example, tabs should be removed from videotapes and cassette tapes, and passwords and access limitations should be placed on computer applications.

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