The Paper Chase: New Records Management Tools Unveiled at Conference

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

June 17, 2010 — If the University of Virginia seems a little lighter these days, it may be because it's lost some weight. About 30 tons.

That's how many outdated and unneeded documents have been destroyed since records officer Caroline Walters joined U.Va. in October 2008. On Wednesday, the Records Management Office hosted its first conference for about 100 records administrators and coordinators across Grounds.

Walters cited progress at the University in records management: More than 40 training sessions for over 1,000 people were held, plus 40 departmental presentations. The records management staff doubled in size when Lori Kressin joined the office as an analyst. The rules for records retention and disposition are being rewritten more clearly. And two "records management days," netted a total of 14 tons of documents.

As a public university and state agency, U.Va. is covered by the Virginia Public Records Act. This state law defines "public records," establishes standards for record maintenance and destruction, and puts the Library of Virginia in charge of deciding questions of retention and disposal. Before documents can be destroyed, "a certificate of records destruction" has to be completed and approved by department heads and Walters.

"I hate processing paper forms as much as anyone does," she said in an interview.

The office is developing URMA – short for "University Records Management Application" – which will eventually permit users to electronically fill out forms and have them approved. In a few weeks, an inventory function will be activated, allowing departments to keep track of what documents they have, and where. Later this summer, URMA will be able to track retention periods for those records, and notify administrators when it's time to start shredding.

Walters' presentation on Wednesday included "scary" photos of storage spaces stacked with boxes and boxes of documents – spaces for which University departments often pay hundreds of dollars in rent each year. She is developing agreements with vendors who will keep boxes organized and accessible in climate-controlled spaces.

One of her war stories is the Fontana food facility on Old Ivy Road. Part of the building is a bakery for University Dining. The rest? Boxes and boxes of documents that could have been destroyed years ago, in accordance with the state requirements.

"We've found boxes of shoes and coats," Walters said. "Probably faculty members who left U.Va. and whoever cleaned out the offices put them into storage." Ten tons of documents and materials have been discarded.

She and Kressin have also stumbled on historically valuable information, such as videos and master tapes of speakers. "We found speeches by Nobel Prize winners and a debate between Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell," she said. Those items are turned over to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library to see whether they can be preserved and digitized.

James Hilton, the University's vice president and chief information officer, told the conference that records management is of growing importance. "The more we can control costs, the more we can support the University's teaching and research missions," he said.

Staff members at the conference said they appreciate the help of the records office. Miranda Bransom, an administrative assistant in risk management, said her office ran out of room for its documents, everything from old insurance contracts to telephone message slips. "We had an office filled with file cabinets," she said. "Now it's half empty."

Jeanne Stovall and Mary Beth Bellah of the Curry School of Education are looking forward to their new home in Bavaro Hall this summer, but they want a records systems in place first. "As we move into the new building, we're only keeping what we need to keep," Stovall said.

The third shredding day is scheduled July 29 at Gilmer and Carruthers halls. And Walters and Kressin will be returning to Fontana on Fridays this fall to continue that cleanout.

"I want U.Va. to be the best at records management of any University in the country," Walters said. "Or the world."

For information, call Walters at 434-243-9162 or Kressin at 434-243-7624, or e-mail records@virginia.edu.