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It’s been a rocky year so far in the world of public records,what with the Moscow library fire and the fire in the Brooklyn records storage facility. In this article Kelvin Smith, former records management consultant at The National Archives, examines some key issues applicable to any organisation that relies on paper and digital records.


Kelvin Smith

Here in the UK, we have experienced the equivalent of the Moscow and Brooklyn fires, albeit not on such a scale. Two incidents that spring to mind are a fire in a library in Wales in the 1990s and the destruction in a fire of Open University magnetic tapes in the early 2000s. There have also been minor incidents in some government departments.

Protection of records against elements such as floods, fire, theft and loss through carelessness or, in the case of electronic records, disk failure and software bugs, is an essential part of the records management role. Adequate measures must be taken to safeguard all of an organisation’s records.

It is estimated that up to 10% of an organisation’s records can be classified as vital.

This is a very big subject but the essential elements are risk assessment, identification of vital records and the disaster plan itself.

Risk assessment

We need to identify risks to records. Water damage is the most common and much of it can be avoided by improving the design and maintenance of buildings. Expert advice should be sought, but there are many things that records managers themselves can do, for example:

  • identify and check regularly potential internal and external hazards such as heating systems, water tanks and water pipes
  • identify and check regularly potential penetration hazards such as windows, gutters, skylights and drains
  • ensure that heating and air-conditioning systems are regularly checked and serviced
  • consider installing flood alarm systems (for example, sensors on water tanks)
  • raise bottom storage shelves five centimetres above floor level
  • fit top storage shelves with metal covers
  • consider boxing important series of records
  • obtain information on local flood danger periods
  • never put records on the floor.

As far as fire is concerned, records managers should be satisfied that there are adequate measures (in the form of procedures, announcements and drills) that will protect the considerable asset for which they are responsible. The fire precautions officer needs to be made aware of the collections of records, where they are stored, who has access to them, and in what form they are, so that adequate measures may be taken.

Again, some simple basic precautions can be taken:

  • ensure that all existing fire regulations in respect of doors, extinguishers and alarm systems are enforced
  • ensure that fire exit and other relevant signage is adequate, particularly in isolated areas such as records stores
  • maintain a list of inflammable substances and isolate them from the building
  • keep storage areas clean and tidy
  • check electrical wiring regularly
  • maintain liaison with local fire prevention officers
  • ensure that staff are kept aware of procedures and means of escape in the event of fire.

Other risks might be physical security, environmental pollution and insect/rodent infestation.

While it is important to recognise the value of preventative measures, records managers should also have a plan in place to secure an organisation’s vital records and to react effectively and efficiently in the event of a disaster.

Vital records

Vital records are those records without which an organisation could not continue to operate. They are the records which contain information needed to re-establish the business of the organisation in the event of a disaster and which protect the assets and interests of the organisation. It is estimated that up to 10% of an organisation’s records can be classified as vital.

Vital records require special protection. More often than not they are duplicated and the copies kept on a different site. Consideration must also be given to training staff and making them aware of what is vital and what is just ‘important’.

Disaster plan

The disaster plan (or business recovery plan as it is often called) brings together the actions necessary at the time of an incident, who needs to be involved, and how and when they are to be contacted. It should be concerned with short to medium term measures enabling the organisation to continue its business with minimum disruption. This should be coordinated with the local community risk register.

The plan should cover:

  • identification of business recovery teams
  • training and awareness programmes
  • emergency equipment
  • supplies and services
  • back-up and off-site storage arrangements
  • vital records.

Useful reading: Digitising records - making an informed choice.


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