A Tedious Essay About Government Record-Keeping Practices

A man stand at a counter, surrounded by enormous stacks of paper.
New York State Assembly Document Room, 1914, courtesy of the New York State Archives

One of the most obscure departments in New York State government, unless you are a historian or genealogist, is the New York State Archives (NYSA or State Archives). Even its own homepage does not convey to the casual visitor what, exactly, it does.

The NYSA does not, for example, collect cool stuff about New York State and its communities from wherever it may be found: books, newspapers, maps, scrapbooks, letters, diaries, your attic. That is the role of the New York State Library (NYSL).

While you can learn a lot about businesses, nonprofits, families, and more at the State Archives, it does not collect records created by businesses, nonprofits, families, or any other non-governmental entities. This distinction is important.

The primary role of the State Archives is to house and make available the records of New York State government after they are no longer needed for everyday business. There are about 3 centuries of government records from the colonial era to the present in the State Archives.

The secondary role of the State Archives is to oversee and standardize government record-keeping practices in the counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts, police & fire departments, etc., in New York State. They have additional duties, but today we’re going to focus on their role regulating local government records.

Let me pause here to make a distinction between a record and a publication.

Let me pause here to make a distinction between a record and a publication.

For the purpose of this essay, a record is the kind of stuff those of us with office jobs generate all day long: emails, spreadsheets, schedules, budget proposals, payrolls, memos, statistics, sign-in sheets, strategic plans, procedural manuals, Powerpoints, databases, and so on. These are not usually designed for public consumption, so we also call them unpublished records. New York State is proactively putting a lot of born-digital records online (publishing them) at its Open Data Portal. Plus, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) enables citizens to request unpublished records from their governments.

A publication or government publication is a document designed and released by a government department for public comment and consumption, such as an annual report, a budget, a revitalization plan, a recycling guide, council meeting minutes, an environmental impact statement. Unlike records, publications issued by state & local governments and commercial publishers end up in the New York State Library.

Let’s look back to 1971. This is when the State Archives was established as an official department of New York. The state of New York had no formal, centralized government record-keeping function until 50 years ago, making it a relative newcomer in Albany.

The state of New York had no official, centralized government record-keeping department until 50 years ago, making it a relative newcomer in Albany.

When the State Archives was founded, it was authorized to develop records retention schedules: legally binding rules about how long certain kinds of government records must be kept. For example, vital records must be kept in perpetuity. Your mileage log, if your government job requires travel? Probably not in perpetuity. These record retention schedules apply to all counties, cities, towns, and villages in New York.

Before 1971, elected and appointed officials and civil servants in New York more or less decided on their own what to keep or toss. Even today, there are lots of people in local government offices who are not well-trained in the record-keeping requirements pertaining to their job or department and they unilaterally delete or discard files.

If you work in a public school anywhere in NY State and you find an ancient attendance ledger in a closet, you might be inspired, with the best of intentions, to offer it to the nearest historical organization. And you’d be wrong. Your school district has a records management officer who must first be consulted about that ledger, because it is public property and isn’t yours to dispose of. In cities, towns & villages, the city, town, or village clerk is the records management officer.

This is a very long way of explaining why local government offices might not have the records you are expecting to find. And why “there must have been a fire” is a convenient explanation, even when it is false. Sometimes it means Oops, someone threw that stuff out.

Published by Cynthia Van Ness

Librarian, author, webmaster. BuffaloResearch.com is an on-my-own-time project, reflecting my own views and idiosyncracies.

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