A Near-Miss at the New York Times Provides a Records Management Wake-Up Call

by De Ana Thompson, Director, New Product & Business Development & Installation, Xerox Local Government Solutions

This fall, a news assistant at the New York Times received an assignment that required him to go to the morgue, a storage area in the sub-basement near The Times’ headquarters. The news assistant needed an old photo and the morgue holds a massive collection of historical photos, along with newspaper clippings, microfilm records, books and other archival material. But when the news assistant walked into the morgue he noticed water pouring into the room.

The water leak was due to a burst pipe and was quickly brought under control, with only minor damage. However, had the leak gone unnoticed, more than 10 million frames in the picture archive would have been unsalvageable and lost forever.

Furthermore, the card catalog has never been digitized. Hundreds of thousands of people and subjects are keyed by index numbers to the photo files. Even if the photos survived and the catalog was damaged, there would be no way to retrieve a particular photo. According to Niko Koppel, a NYT picture editor, “Those getting even a little wet would have left them smudged, smeared and stuck together. They are our blueprints to the morgue. Without them, the material is lost.”

The burst pipe in the morgue could have destroyed irreplaceable records that captured some of our country’s milestone historical moments, but thankfully this is a cautionary tale with a feel-good ending. A proper records management strategy can not only safeguard paper files but help to optimize the flow of information within an organization creating more efficient processes.

Maybe you have a room — or rooms — of boxes filled with old archived files that need to be saved. Or you’re battling inefficient processes that require workers to touch a document several times instead of just once. A document management strategy can be the answer. In a recent blog post we discussed best practices for implementing a successful program. The tips include having the right technology in place, training employees, and creating a retention plan.

We’ve worked with agencies across the country to overhaul the way they archive, retrieve and process documents. For example, the Clerk’s Office on Staten Island manages property records dating back to 1683 and turned to us for help when they were drowning in paperwork. Land records were being stored in hallways, under stairwells and in the attic and they needed a better way to work. Over the past 20 years, we helped the County transition from a labor-intensive “bucket” system of moving paper files, to microfilm and compact books of records, and then to a highly sophisticated imaging system that has customer satisfaction ratings at 90 percent. You can read the full transformation story in our case study here.

While most government agencies don’t deal with early photos of the civil rights movement or the first World War like the NYTs, land records, permits and birth/marriage/death certificates are just as vital to the citizens they serve. Developing a plan to take care of these precious files will protect the irreplaceable before it’s too late.

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