Vital Records: How to Protect Vital Records

After you have identified any Vital Records in your office, you need to provide a protection method that best suits the record format. The protection method will be based on several factors, including:

  • Cost and effectiveness of protection.
  • Equipment necessary to enforce the protection method.
  • How vital the record is.
  • Format of the record.
  • Access and retrieval needs.

Vital Records should be stored in a format that will last as long as the records are needed. If a Vital Record is in a format only readable by specific equipment (i.e., microfilm reader, computers), procedures for accessing/obtaining the equipment must be arranged. For example, if a Vital Record is in electronic format, then the hardware or software used to create the record also needs to be protected or arrangements made to obtain compatible equipment.

The main protection method for Vital Records is through Duplication /Dispersal of records. This entails the physical duplication of information and the transfer/dispersal of these duplicates to an on/off site storage location.

The benefits of duplication/dispersal are:

  • The minimal chance that the primary copy and all distributed copies will be destroyed.
  • It is cost efficient.
  • It is easy to do and usually done in the normal course of business.

The drawbacks to duplication/dispersal are:

  • The volume (e.g., number of pages or number of copies needed) of the record, may cause this method to become burdensome over time.
  • The distribution of additional copies of information on paper is a poor records management practice. The State Records Center will not take duplicate copies of the same record for storage. In cases where several offices have the same record, responsibility for the original is not always clear. Offices which do not have responsibility for the original tend to keep their copy too long.

There are two ways of achieving duplication/dispersal:

  • Natural/built in: The information is routinely distributed to other departments, offices, or individuals. This is the least expensive form of protection since it often occurs in the normal course of business, usually without offices being consciously aware of it.
  • Reproduction: This represents the decision to duplicate or transfer the record onto a different format specifically for its protection. Microforms or magnetic media are the most common forms of reproduction.
    • Microform (film, fiche) requires a specialized reader and printer to access information. It does not matter which format is used, the process remains the same for both. Working and security copies should be created for either type.
    • Working copy - The working copy is produced on Diazo film which does not scratch as easily as the Silver film. It is very durable and should be used for everyday reference purposes.
    • Security Film - The security copy is produced on Silver Halide film. This is a master copy and should not be used in a microfilm reader. It should only be used to generate more working copies (Diazo copy) of the film.

The best way to store the security copy is in an environmentally controlled secure storage area. If your office does not have access to such an area, the Silver film should be stored in a dust free area, in its protective case. However, never store the Silver film and the Diazo copy in the same area (i.e., box, cabinet, filing drawer) because the out-gassing of the Diazo copy will degrade the Silver film, making it unreadable and useless for the production of additional copies.

Advantages of microforms:

  • They are very inexpensive to duplicate.
  • They are compact and easy to store/handle/move.
  • They have proven to last over 100 years and have a life expectancy of approximately 500 years.

Microforms do have an inherent disadvantage:

  • The initial cost of preparation of, and the actual filming of, records can be high.
  • Magnetic tapes/electronic media are acceptable for the protection of Vital Records having a retention period of less than 10 years. Since magnetic tapes have limited stability, special handling is needed to ensure the preservation of electronic records. Media stability refers to the period of time during which the media can be used for reliable recording or playback of the information. The useful life of magnetic tapes is estimated to be 7-9 years. Yearly review of the tapes to ensure the information is readable and to migrate the information to new systems is highly suggested.

Criteria for using magnetic tape:

  • Data must be superseded or updated so frequently that it precludes the economical use of microfilm or paper. That is, if the information is updated everyday and making an electronic copy is easier or more cost effective than photocopy or microfilm, using magnetic media for Vital Records storage could be a viable option.
  • You must have continued access to the equipment and software needed to retrieve, read, and reproduce the information.
  • You must migrate all information to new tapes everytime hardware or software is upgraded. These tapes MUST be compatible with the upgraded system.
  • The information is most easily read in electronic format.

Magnetic tapes have some inherent disadvantages when used for security records:

  • They can easily be erased, or data can be lost, due to contact with magnetic fields or through improper storage conditions.
  • Retrieval of information from magnetic tapes is all but impossible if you do not have the machine (computer) software to run the tapes.
  • Cost of maintaining necessary equipment and software.
  • Cost of continued migration of data to new tapes.
  • Limited media stability.


If magnetic tape is selected as the security storage media, the programs, machine instructions, system documentation, and other items required to access the records become Vital Records and must be protected accordingly.

Vital Records: How To Store Vital Records

After determining what method will be used to protect Vital Records, determining where and how to store the records is crucial. The location you chose will need to be accessible within seconds to 24 hours after a disaster. Vital Records can be stored on-site, off-site, or in specialized equipment.

On-site storage means storing Vital Records in the same vicinity as your office, such as in a closet or storage area in the building. The drawback to choosing on-site storage is that if a major disaster strikes the entire building or damages it beyond repair, you have little chance of retrieving your Vital Records.

If you choose to store your Vital Records in the same building your office occupies, it is necessary to take precautions to prevent a disaster from spreading to the areas in which the Vital Records are stored. This could range from installing fire doors and walls, to following basic best practices to protect your records. Best practices range from actual physical location to working conditions within the storage area.

The following should be taken into consideration and resolved for each office which has Vital Records in their active files:

  • Does the storage area have ventilation? Does it have proper temperature and humidity controls?
  • Are there electromagnetic fields nearby that could damage computer tapes or disks?
  • What security measures are in place to stop unauthorized access to the area?
  • Is the building itself secured against fire, flood and other disasters?
  • Is the equipment used for storage adequately safe from disasters and sabotage?
  • Would you feel safer storing the only copy of a Vital Record on-site or off-site?

Once the on-site storage location has been chosen, the following concerns should be addressed:

  • Check for potential fire, water or sewer hazards. Any corrections or repairs should be made immediately (leaking overhead pipes may cause a disaster). Records should never be stored directly under any type of pipes.
  • Staff members should know the location of the vital records and access to materials should be restricted to authorized personnel.
  • Aisles and doorways should be kept clear at all times.
  • Inactive records should be transferred on a regular basis to the University Records Center (URC) for storage.
  • Staff members should know the location of all ABC fire extinguishers.

TIP: ABC fire extinguishers deal with three types of flammable materials: A = wood and paper, B = liquids and grease, C = electrical. Contact Environmental Health and Safety for more information on types of fire extinguishers.

Basements or ground floor areas should be used for storage as a last resort since they are most susceptible to water and sewer damage.

Off-Site Storage

Off-site storage means storing the records away from the office, in another building or out of the geographical area. There are several options for off-site storage, including hot sites, cold sites, and records centers.

Both hot and cold sites are usually affiliated with offices that rely heavily on the recovery or availability of databases or electronic records for continuance of their normal operations. However, these sites can also be used by offices that rely on paper or microfilm records. For our purposes we are going to apply the concept of a hot-site to all media formats.

  • Hot site - An area identified prior to an emergency/disaster as the operation center or meeting place from which the office staff will continue operations or restart normal operations. Hot sites contain everything your office has identified as critical for operation, How to Identify Vital Records ready for immediate use. This method of protection can be costly and is best used by offices which will require computer systems to be up and running immediately after disaster, or by offices with the responsibility for organizing and running recovery procedures (i.e., police, physical plant, computing and communications).

Prior to establishing a hot-site, an analysis of the cost-effectiveness of maintaining a hot-site should be completed. Hot-sites require continuous updating of equipment to ensure the area is ready for use. Additionally, in most instances, the site must be in a location that allows personnel to arrive there quickly.

  • Cold site - A cold site is an area identified as a back-up location in case the original office is unusable after a disaster. It differs from a hot-site in that there is no pre-purchase of equipment or supplies which are stored at the cold site prior to an emergency. Although it is much less costly, re-establishing operations at a cold site involves more time and effort than moving operations to a hot site. An analysis should be done to ensure that establishing a cold-site will be cost effective. If the cold-site is used to store Vital Records, the cost of duplicating and delivering the Vital Records to the site must be considered in the cost analysis.

The use of Specialized Equipment, such as vaults, fire-resistant cabinets and/or fire-resistant safes, represents another type of on-site storage. While this equipment may provide some initial protection against fire damage, it may not be immune to water damage. Fire-resistant equipment is often used as a last resort when there is very little office space or no storage areas available to hold duplicated Vital Records.

Disadvantages of specialized equipment include:

  • The possibility of spontaneous combustion when a drawer is opened after a fire, the result of oxygen being released back into the drawer's atmosphere.
  • Inadequate protection from extreme temperatures. If the fire is hot enough, the paper records will burn in the drawer.
  • The high cost of specialized equipment.
  • The susceptibility of specialized equipment to water damage.
  • Materials used in construction will make specialized equipment heavy and burdensome, which can be a hazard after a fire because of increased weight from water gain.
  • The weight load of the equipment may be too heavy for some floors in older buildings.

If specialized equipment is going to be used it should be designed specifically for the type of record medium it contains and used exclusively for Vital Records.

Satisfactory fire-resistant cabinets/vaults are rated according to the maximum number of hours they can be exposed to fire and maximum temperature while still protecting the contents. For example, a rating of UL 150-3 means that this piece of equipment has an Underwriter's Laboratory Class 150 rating with 3 hours of protection from fire damage. Vendor catalogs will give the specifications and equipment costs according to level of resistance. However, keep in mind that the "hours of protection" will decrease as the temperature of the fire increases.