Important Versus Vital Records: The Magic 5% You Can't Live Without

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Executive Summary

Although they number just five percent of an organization’s total record population, vital records and how you care for them can have a big impact on your business. These records require special preservation measures — ones that aren’t found in ordinary on and offsite storage facilities.Whether a legal document, photograph, customer record, X-ray, blueprint, patent, corporate article or one-of- a-kind object, when it comes to vital records, storage is the single most important factor in determining their useful life.

How do you identify what records are vital to your organization? What measures should you take to ensure their long-term protection? How does the material of which a record is made influence its longevity — and guide your choice of storage solution?

The question remains, have you done enough to preserve your organization’s vital and irreplaceable five percent? This white paper will help you define what your vital records are, understand the risks associated with inadequate preservation, evaluate storage options and implement an effective vital records program for your organization.


Protection of vital records may be the least understood — or the least appreciated — area of records management. If you’re reading this white paper, chances are you already know a great deal about managing records. Certainly this discipline has never been more critical, particularly in light of legislative and compliance requirements, such as Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX of 2002, the Gramm Leach Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act GLBA), the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the growing body of state and local mandates designed to protect information. In addition, new laws have increased the cost and risk associated with legal discovery processes — a particularly worrisome area in today’s litigious world.

What Is A Vital Record?

Vital records are fundamental to an organization’s ability to function.

Certain vital records contain information critical to the continued operation or survival of an organization during or immediately following a crisis. Such records are necessary to continue operations without delay under abnormal conditions. They contain information necessary to recreate an organization’s legal and financial status and preserve the rights and obligations of stakeholders, including employees, customers, investors and citizens.

Some vital records may be unique and difficult or prohibitively expensive to reproduce. However, they may be required in their original form to meet or fulfill evidential requirements.

Records should be classified as vital only for as long as they support critical business processes and fulfill the requirements described above. Once they have fulfilled this role, they should be reclassified.

Source: Vital Records: Identifying, Managing, and Recovering Business Critical Records, ARMA International.

And, chances are you have devoted significant resources and effort to improving your records management strategy and procedures. But have you done enough?

One area of vulnerability for many organizations is ensuring the accessibility and records. Comprising just five percent of an organization’s total record population, vital records are critical to enterprise operations. They may contain information needed to ensure business continuity during or shortly after a crisis, for example. Or, they may document legal or financial status and preserve the rights of an organization’s stakeholders. If vital records are managed properly, your organization is protected. If they aren’t, you’re exposed to risks such as noncompliance, loss of asset value and high costs associated with restoration and duplication.

“Vital” has a unique meaning when it comes to records. For example, your current checking account balance is a critical piece of information. But, it’s dynamic and doesn’t need to be preserved for extended time periods. Therefore, it is not a vital record. Longevity is the fundamental differentiator between vital records and all others. Vital records have enduring value that must be preserved for years or even centuries. Storing them in a box on a shelf somewhere is simply not enough. The preservation process must ensure that vital records remain secure, accessible and usable over these extreme time frames.

Vital records contain information organizations need to continue operations during or shortly after a crisis. Some document legal and financial status, such as contracts, patents, deeds, X-rays, laboratory notebooks and blueprints. Others preserve the rights of stakeholders. Still others are one-of-a-kind items with historical significance. Vital records are often physical records, such as paper or film. And, as detailed in the following section, every organization has a uniquely defined set of vital records.

Examples Of Vital Records

  • Contracts
  • Patents and intellectual property
  • Leases
  • Policy manuals
  • Articles of incorporation
  • Quality Assurance (QA) records
  • Blueprints
  • Drawings
  • Maps
  • Customer records
  • Corporate papers
  • Laboratory notebooks
  • Policy or procedure manuals
  • Deeds
  • Audio tapes
  • Video tapes
  • Photographs and slides
  • X-rays
  • Advertisements
  • Titles
  • Cultural artifacts

Remember, what’s vital for one organization may not be for another. Use your organization’s mission as a guide for determining which records are truly vital.

Your Vital Records

Identifying records that are truly vital is the first step in the preservation process — and that determination will differ from organization to organization.

“Start with your organization’s mission and use that to guide the process of defining what is vital.”

When approaching the process of defining vital records, it’s best to start with your organization’s mission and use that as a guide. After all, you cannot afford to collect, label and treat everything as vital — you must place your limited preservation resources where they are most needed. So, it’s incredibly important to think about the elements that define and embody that mission — and therefore require long-term preservation. Ask yourself the following:

  • What’s important to carry forward for the historical record? What do you want the future to know about your organization?
  • What legal or regulatory requirements govern your organization and what records must be retained to comply?
  • Will your organization be able to reuse or repurpose items in the future? (Think about the remastering of movies and sound records using DVD and CD media as an example. Is there potential for something similar in your business?)
  • What records must be preserved to protect the rights of employees, customers and shareholders?
  • What needs to be preserved to ensure the continuity of business operations? 1
  • What would the consequences be if certain classes of records were lost? What would your organization be unable to do without them? Could normal functions take place?
  • Can the records be replaced or reconstructed? At what cost?

Experience shows that if you don’t take this top-down approach beginning with examining the mission, you’re at a distinct disadvantage — with little basis upon which to determine what’s important and create a plan.

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Fundamentals of Records Retention Schedule
Fundamentals of Records Retention Schedule

Topics: Store and Protect Information

A records retention schedule is the cornerstone of an effective records management program. It is a policy document that defines an organization's legal and compliance recordkeeping requirements. A company implements a records retention schedule in order to ensure that its records are kept as long as legally and operationally required and that obsolete records are disposed of in a systematic and controlled manner. The records retention schedule is intended to ensure that employees adhere to approved recordkeeping requirements, and that they do so consistently.