This story is the first part in a two-part series on record retention.
For boys in my day, it usually began with a cigar box—a place to keep the really important things: marbles and bottle caps, a particularly colorful leaf or the exoskeleton of an unusual insect. I think that most of us have, at some level, a compulsion to save things. Some of the things that we save are important—I have a collection of newspaper clippings about my father, without which I would know very little about him. However, many of the things we save are not important—I seem to collect owner’s manuals and warranty information for products I no longer own. (I am going to sort through that stuff one of these days.)
I am not slighting the lawyers, mind you. I am one, after all, and we have good reason to be concerned. The external demands to preserve information are many, and come primarily from two sources: litigation and regulation. My very first recollection of a requirement that records of any type be retained for any period of time was hearing that I should keep my tax records for seven years. That was more than 30 years ago, and while it turns out to be a bit of a myth, it demonstrates how pervasively the government is interested in how long certain record types are kept. There are literally thousands of federal regulations requiring records to be maintained for fixed periods of time and, often, in prescribed fashions. State regulations simply compound the situation. Though the number of retention requirements for any particular company are finite, they are nevertheless complex, difficult to identify and even more difficult to apply. The end result is that many companies have a stated or de facto policy of keeping everything … forever.
Therefore, most companies find themselves spending enormous amounts of money (check with accounting – it’s true) to store massive amounts of data (check with IT – true again) in a wide variety of repositories, from legacy systems and backup tapes to active file servers and e-mail archives. And most of that money is ill-spent.