The Dreaded Paperwork

Elise KordisThe water kept coming into the basement. Water rolling in like waves. The rains and subsequent flooding were heavy that day, so I’ve been told.

The building was over 100 years old, a former dry goods store turned history museum. Many of the old records were stored in the basement. As a result of the flooding, records were put in new boxes and hauled up to the main floors. Other records were stored at the old courthouse on the top floor. Many of those records had significant damage due to the soot and other elements.

For years the records sat. When I came to the museum, it was one of my goals to organize and preserve old records in the best practices and to create a policy on data management. We started with one record at a time.

The action plan was to first assess the damage and how to best store documents. We then did minor conservation and stored the documents using the best practices. The third step was to digitize and data entry. This was no small feat. There were thousands of records, a good portion of them were duplicates however. To my knowledge, this project has not yet been completed.

Organizing these records was not “just for fun.” These records told the story of the organization, almost 100 years of information. The documents held the little “secrets,” the institutional knowledge. They were imperative to the history of the museum (meeting notes, curators, exhibitions, notes about objects, and many more pieces of data).

Not only were old records disorderly, the “newer” records were out of shape too. In the 1980s the museum moved into one building. Records were scattered and not refiled (not that I blame staff as through out the museum’s history the most employed at one time was 3 full time and 2 part time people all managing a 33,000 square feet space and a collection of about 150,000). As we were working on the old records, I began to think about the newer records. I had spent much time trying to figure out where paperwork was filed, such as where was that grant paperwork from 10 years ago? Or what happened to the visitor logs? Or what did we do for our annual festival years back? Or where were our budgets or other financial statements?

These questions and others prompted me to assess the “newer” records and organize the data in a way that could be easily accessible. All the paperwork was there, it just needed some sorting. Just like the old records, I started one folder at a time. My office was never clean. I had piles everywhere! Low and behold, the project was completed. We learned a lot in the process, facts about the museum, practices, exhibits, funding, etc.

Now this isn’t a story of what was accomplished at the museum, but a word to the wise.

  1. Place documents in a safe environment.
  2. Keep important records such as those documenting the history of your organization.
  3. Develop a data management plan or a records retention plan.

It is a lengthy and time consuming process if you start from scratch; however, it is well worth the effort! It also doesn’t matter the age of the organization. It is easier to start now than go through episodes with mother nature and moves.


Resources for Record keeping

Records Management for Nonprofits

Grant Space

Record Keeping for Nonprofits Fact Sheet

ARMA International – Association of Records Managers and Administrators

IRS – Source is in context for businesses; however, useful for nonprofits.

EEOC – Source is for employment record keeping.

Federal Records Management Handbook

10 Step Guide for Records Management

Record Retention Guide

Sample Document Retention and Destruction Policy

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