[Ask a Business Archivist]: What Financial Records Belong in the Archives?

This is the fourth post in a collaborative series with the Business Archives Section. You can read all posts from this series here. Have a SNAP-related question for the archivists? Check out our anonymous submission form here.

Ask a Business Archivist Question:

I was recently hired for my first full-time job with the Franciscan Friars. A problem I’m having is how to handle their financial records. Many friaries, missions, parishes, etc. kept ledgers through the 1980s. Recently, however, bank statements are printed from online accounts. It’s almost an overwhelming amount of papers because it’s so much easier than them having to keep track of things by hand. My question is how much of the more recent stuff should I aim to keep? All monthly statement, just yearly statements, voided checks, etc.? It seems during the “ledger days” they really only kept the most important receipts and many years’ worth of bookkeeping were in one ledger. (Additionally, the Treasurer’s Office keeps files until they are legally obligated to, then transfers the files to the archives.)

Ask an Archivist Answers:

At the Archdiocese of Atlanta, our department is responsible for both archives and records management for all of our administrative offices, parishes, missions, schools, etc.  I 100% understand the issues you have in tackling a massive collection of records and in trying to alter the culture of the work environment to the 21st century (aka less paper).  From your question, it sounds like you actually have more than one issue here:

  1. What financial records to keep permanently in the archives
  2. How to manage the non-permanent financial records

As for what financial records to keep permanently, our approach is very minimal and we recommend our entities retain Annual Bank Statements and Annual Financial Reports (Certified or Audited) for the Archives.  The bulk of the rest of the financial records are non-permanent.  Occasionally, different entities will keep receipts or purchase information for major items (like church organs), but those types of records have value for the life of the item purchased and sometimes even after the item is no longer owned by the entity for historical reasons.  It will vary from organization to organization what those exceptions will be.

Moving on to how to manage the non-permanent financial records, I think the first thing for you to try tackling is the monthly financial statements.  There is no need to keep those once your Finance people have reconciled the books.  If for some reason they would need to see a monthly statement, they can log back into the online bank account and access the PDF at any time.  (The paper printout is really a copy anyway since the statements are born digital these days.)

The next thing to consider trying to get a handle on is your process for managing the non-permanent financial records.  Do you have a Records Management function at your organization?  Do you have storage space on-site for non-archival records?  Do you have a retention schedule in place?  These questions are worth discussing with whoever you report to because it sounds like the finance department just sends you all their records, whether or not they’re permanent.  That puts a huge burden on you to review all those records when it could better be completed by the finance department itself.

At the Archdiocese of Atlanta, we do not accept any non-permanent records into the archives and we do not have on-site records storage.  We manage the process for sending records off-site and maintain the relationship with the records storage vendor, but Finance pays for their storage.  Most of the records that get sent off-site are transitory financial records, such as accounts payable, accounts receivable, invoices, journal entries, etc.  The bulk of these records at our organization have a 5 year retention for legal reasons.  When it reaches disposition time, we give finance a printout of the records up for destruction, we (archives and finance) sign-off on it, and then archives facilitates the shredding with the records storage vendor.  (We have a similar disposition process for all non-permanent records, whether or not they’re at off-site storage, where the entities have to ask permission to shred.  It’s our way of ensuring no records are destroyed before they’re supposed to be and that no archival records get disposed of.)

Obviously, not every organization will have the exact same process or retention.  I recommend doing some research into retention of religious organization records by checking out different Catholic dioceses across the country.  Many dioceses have a joint Archives and Records Management department and they tend to put a lot of their documentation online (Charleston, New Orleans, Chicago, etc., to name a few).  For example, we have our records retention schedule and a ton of other useful documentation available on our department website at https://archatl.com/offices/archives/records-management/.  Also, most people I know in the diocesan archives and the business archives world are very open to discussing these types of questions one-on-one as well, so don’t hesitate to reach out to someone if you have more questions!

Angelique M. Richardson, CA
Director of Archives and Records, Archdiocese of Atlanta

As both archivist and records manager at a religious organization, I recommend only keeping year end financial statements, audited annual financial reports, general ledgers or other top level annual financial information from friaries, missions, parishes, etc. as well as from the Treasurer’s Office.  Find out if the Friars have their own records retention policy or use the one offered by the U. S. C. C. B (It does NOT cover state and local laws, but it does cover most financial records, although not all.) Voided checks, monthly and quarterly statements, etc. do not need to be kept any longer than legally required.

Joseph Coen
Archivist, R. C. Diocese of Brooklyn

Our company, like most others, creates a lot of financial records and that number has also exponentially increased with digital record keeping. When we review records for the archives here, we consider several factors. First, our company follows a records management retention policy requiring records to be kept for specific periods of time and then requiring that they be reviewed for disposition. In that review process, the department manager has the opportunity to indicate if a record needs to be kept longer for a valid business purpose. If they do not need to keep the record, the archives gets a chance to review it for its historic value. Since we know that the business group is officially done with the record, and no longer needs to keep it for any legal reason, we can freely review the record for its intrinsic historic value and not worry about losing finite data that may still be needed by the departments.

With that in mind, our second consideration is to sort through and only review aggregate data (annual summaries, executive summaries and reports, etc.). Quarterly, monthly, and especially daily numbers and counts are simply not worth saving. In our experience, when we are asked financial questions they are most often focused on searching for trends from year to year, decade to decade, and not specific months or days. For that reason, we put in our collections policy that we only keep aggregate financial data and summary reports. That way we are can refer to that policy when explaining why we did or did not keep a record.

Our final consideration when reviewing financial records is what information they are actually tracking. We do not keep financial information about payroll or voided checks. We do not keep anything that would have personal information of our staff or customers on it as that information is confidential and not something we wish to become responsible for. We consider if the data tracks a small departments annual fuel purchases, which we would not keep, or if it tracks annual expenses and income for the company as a whole, which we would keep. In the end, it’s about space and value. Consider what kind of questions people ask you and what areas seem to be more important than others. Consider the goals and mission of your institution and what kind of records might support those goals. I work for a utility company and so our considerations are certainly going to vary from the records of the Franciscan Friars but I do hope this helps as you figure out what works best for your archives.

Chelsea Jones
Historical Analyst, Salt River Project