Vital Records: Steps for Offices to Follow

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The one thing to remember when dealing with Vital Records is that you cannot save all the records. But by completing the following steps you can:

  • protect some records against disaster
  • lessen the damage caused by a disaster.
  • identify those records which merit restoration if they are damaged

At this University, individual offices are responsible for identifying and protecting their own Vital Records. However, if you have questions, would like additional information or would like to discuss any issue in more detail, please contact University Records Management Services at 916-278-6312.

  • Responsibility. Identify the individual(s) responsible for identifying vital functions and Vital Records in your office. Responsibility for records identification can lie with one person or with a team of people. If a team will be established, personnel included can be from areas within the same office or from outside of the office. Interoffice staff could include budget, payroll, records coordinators, program assistants, support staff, or computer/information systems personnel. Participants from other offices could include Risk Management, University Counsel, University Police, Environmental Health and Safety, or Records Management.

The individual or team will also be responsible for arranging for the protection of the Vital Records, organizing recovery efforts, etc.

  • Identification. To start identifying Vital Records, it is necessary to identify your office's main responsibilities or functions. Determine what you will be unable to do if a specific record is destroyed and how critical this inability is. Additionally, determine which responsibilities are unique to your office and which protect the interests of clients or employees of the University and then identify what records are created or needed to complete these responsibilities. These records represent a preliminary listing of your Vital Records.

You will need to speak with people who are actually responsible for the functions identified in order to gain an insight into the daily use of the records. The people who work with these records on a daily basis will be able to prioritize their importance and identify those which are the most vital. For computer systems, talk not only to system administrators, but also to the data entry personnel and individuals who use the system most often.

Once Vital Records have been identified, a list should be maintained which identifies their location and if any method is being used to protect them. The person responsible for Vital Records should continually update this list and make it available to the rest of the office.

  • Risk Assessment. A risk assessment will assist you in determining the appropriate protection method to use for your Vital Records. Risk assessments identify the potential hazards a record faces as well as how the records can be damaged by those hazards. Hazards can range from a natural disaster to spilled coffee, computer crashes to unlawful access.
  • Protection. Once you have identified potential risks, you must determine a protection method for your Vital Records. Depending on your office's functions, some of the records you have identified as vital may be protected through natural duplication or reproduction. Arrangements for off-site or on-site storage should be made and the location of off-site copies should be indicated on a Vital Records List. Part of protection includes prevention methods.
  • Prevention measures can be as simple as not using rolling ink (which is water-soluble) on Vital Records or as complex as establishing scheduled back-up of computer systems or sending Vital Records off-site for storage. The identification and protection of your Vital Records is only one part of prevention. It is also necessary to be sure that identified steps are taken to help increase the probability that your records will be available after an emergency.

  • Recovery Methods. After an emergency there is always the chance that your records will be damaged in some way. We have included some short tips for stabilizing damaged records until representatives from Records Management Services arrive to assist you with recovery.

Due to the differences between various media types, recovery efforts will vary from office to office. But there are a few basic rules that all offices need to follow after a disaster:

  • Do not use fans in rooms which have water damaged records.
  • Keep the temperature as cold as possible in rooms which have water damaged records.
  • Keep rooms which have water damaged records well ventilated.
  • Bring down temperature and humidity to help the water evaporate.
  • If suffered sewer damage, or hazardous waste leakage onto records, call Environmental Health and Safety (916-278-5165), as the area will need to be cleaned by BioHazard specialists.
  • If microfilm or electronic media (tapes, disks, etc.) have gotten wet, keep them wet, do not let them dry.

Coordination of the recovery effort should be done both before and after a disaster strikes. Before a disaster you should have the following materials handy (preferably stored in a waterproof container):

  • An emergency contact list (personnel, vendors, and numbers for police, fire, etc.)
  • A map of the location of Vital Records
  • Appropriate supplies for use in initial recovery efforts, which may include:
    • Paper towels
    • Plastic garbage bags
    • Protective masks, gloves, and clothing
    • Flashlights
    • Plastic sheeting
    • Scissors
    • Mops and buckets (or location where they can be found)
    • Paper, pencils, and water proof markers
    • Master keys of offices, storage areas, desks, and cabinets
    • Hard hats
    • Rubber gloves
    • Clip boards
    • Camera and film

Records Management Services should be contacted as soon as possible after an emergency in which records are damaged regardless of the extent or severity of the damage.