Editors' Forum | Document Danger - Upcoming generations might never access documents deemed worthless
Documents, including those that disclose government actions that affect the lives of the population over many years, may be lost to another generation if they are declared of no legal, cultural or administrative value after review by the Archives Advisory Committee (AAC).
The committee, which is chaired by the chief justice and which stands for three years, has been empowered under the Archives Act to make a determination on the lifespan of documents, including their survival, destruction or retention.
This is despite the Government’s Vision 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to make public access to information accessible to all.
During a Gleaner Editors’ Forum last Thursday, where the role of libraries and information technology in a changing world was examined, it was noted that all documents have a limited lifetime, and some may be destroyed on recommendation of the committee and library systems of government agencies.
Government archivist Claudette Thomas, who serves as secretary of AAC, explained the process of retention, destruction or archiving of documents.
“Documents are reviewed every three years. The act speaks to the definition for official records. The Access to Information Act speaks to official documents. Documents are usually those which are active. In the Archives Act it would have to go through a 30-year process before it graduates to become a record,” she told The Sunday Gleaner after the forum.
“Every entity, every government organisation creates documents to do their various businesses. Every document has a lifespan, but not every document will become a record. Some, you create it and it dies within a day, but others, as you build on it and it has a transactional or evidential purpose, it becomes a record and must be kept,” she explained.
Records, Thomas said, have characteristics such as authenticity, integrity and authority and the organisations that create them, along with the authoritative signatures, determine the recognition they are given. Requests for the disposal of documents are made, and reviewed by the committee that meets twice per year.
“The locations determine if a document has a lifespan. You send us what is called a retention schedule. This will be evaluated by the experts and approval is granted or denied. If approval is granted, the local committee is written to and told,” she explained.
Recommendations include disposal, non-disposal, or archived. Disposal is supervised by an oversight officer from the Jamaica Archives and Records Department (JARD), who certifies that the correct records are destroyed. A certificate is then issued, she said.
Kaysia Halstead-Brown, senior records management analyst at the JARD, said the body provides guidance to ministries, departments and agencies in their record and information management programmes.
“We guide and train them on how to conduct workshops, how to do survey inventories, how to classify their records, how to destroy their records and how to transfer records to the government record centre, and to do their appraisal and retention schedule, because all records have a lifetime,” she told the forum.
The legal, historical or administrative value of a document determines its lifespan.
Records involving Cabinet decisions are available at JARD in Spanish Town, St Catherine, and after 30 years become free to the public. Under the current Access to Information Act, documents are accessible after 20 years.