“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Our Turf?

February 21st, 2015


George Despres
University Records Manager, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

Last fall, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, was released in the United States. This book passed under my radar until a kind colleague pointed out that, in one chapter, Kondo dispenses personal record retention and categorization guidance. Kondo is “an organizing consultant and author.” The book, translated from Japanese to English, reads like rather quaint, Emily Postian, self-help prose, and it is no info governance (IG) monograph. However, this bestselling title sold over 2 million copies worldwide (as of last year), with releases in Korea, Germany, the UK, the US, and probably elsewhere. So, Kondo has reached more people with her specific retention advice than most if not all of us will likely advise in our professional lifetimes.

Yes, there is a distinction here – we advise and act on institutional records at professional organizations from the IG standpoint, while Kondo addresses documents in private closets, trunks, boxes, letter holders, drawers, racks, and cabinets, on coffee, dining room, and end tables, countertops, in bathrooms, basements, attics, and elsewhere. Maybe in car trunks, too. And anyone can write a book about anything. Still, as a records professional, I’m left feeling like this “organizing consultant” is somehow stealing my (our) fire. I hope that you’ll see why below.

About the Book

Kondo’s personal record advice appears in a “Sorting Papers” section of a chapter titled, “Tidying by Category Works Like Magic.” As her chapter title indicates, Kondo emphasizes categorization as a means of getting through personal records and papers. Okay, so far. Her first categorization splits records to be saved from records requiring action. Everyone, she says, should keep a “needs attention” box for the action files. This box should be kept empty, echoing David Allen’s anti-procrastination approach to clean email inboxes in Getting Things Done. Kondo advocates Big Bucket practice, telling readers to “refrain from subdividing” their main record categories. That said, she recommends subdividing papers “to be saved” based on their expected use frequency.

As for specific documents, Kondo urges her audience to keep all product warrantees in one clear container, avoiding complicated subdivisions, since they will be infrequently referenced anyway. Expired warrantees should be weeded only when one happens to be spending the time reviewing a warrantee in the collection, or adding one. Kondo prescribes one year retention for holiday greeting cards “to confirm the sending address the following year.” She instructs us to throw away most product manuals, which can be found online or simply be ignored by fixing the product yourself and “fiddling with the [affected] machine” (!): “Take a look at them [manuals]. Have you ever used them?” We’ll store this tip in the chuck-it-and-cry-tomorrow bin.

One flimsy appraisal lynchpin underlying Kondo’s advice is to keep records and things only if they “spark joy in your heart” (yes, I’m serious). This premise is highly subjective and relative advice that a hoarder or crazy person or perfectly sane person might construe as “all records,” including their 2003 cinema ticket stub for Dumb and Dumberer and the takeout menu from a deli that closed in 1986. Can you imagine instructing your C-Suite executives to maintain only the records that spark joy in their hearts? Even as a prescription for personal records in the home, this advice is murky at best and the efficiency equivalent of peeling raw carrots with a dull butter knife at worst. Conversely, Kondo goads her readers to “limit yourself at first to sorting papers that give you no thrill at all,” as if that button is simply turned on and off, and as if “joy sparking” records will never be interfiled with “no thrill” records in the first place. Furthermore, something that sparks joy on a Tuesday could easily find the no thrill trash bin on Friday, depending on one’s mood. The operating mentality is to let emotion or lack thereof drive personal record prioritization, categorization, and disposition. Huh.

While hoarding (compulsive or indifferent) has been at least acknowledged by the IG community (e.g., here and here), some of us tend to stop at this point and view it as an annoying fait accompli, and organizing professionals and psychologists tend to take over this space. Although we may advocate for record destruction (even this may be changing), many or most of us don’t expend much energy on the psychology of why people want to keep things “just in case,” in order to combat it. Our job is to say: “You can’t / shouldn’t over-retain it, period” (perhaps a couple of hoarder psychology questions would be in order for Part 4 of the CRM exam?). To her credit, Kondo takes on this over-retention tendency by encouraging destruction of some junk. She argues (though without much supporting evidence) for destruction of most conference material: “People often insist, ‘I want to restudy these materials sometime’ but most never do.” She forcefully implores readers to delete credit card documents, used checkbooks, and pay slips, without any acknowledgement of the need to securely eradicate the PII therein (whoops). To be fair, shredders are mentioned elsewhere in the book. Kondo refers to hoarding “lawyer clients” she had who kept asking, somewhat out of professional character, “What if this document is needed in court”? They were eventually cured of their malaise. The more I read through Kondo’s instructions, the more I came away with the notion that this or some of this is our business, or that it should be.

Professional Ownership?

Kondo’s book is popular and successful, and her home “records management” prescriptions are intended as part of a broader life organization and cleansing effort. There is a therapeutic subtext in her book that is, I think, remote from the main thrusts of our profession. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Her Sorting Papers advice and mis-advice demonstrate that much of our knowledge and expertise have not reached the personal record self-help arena and that, conversely, the mass market fails to refer to us when we can really help or better advise.

Perhaps we can take some of this space under our wings by dispensing personal record guidelines to our institutional communities as a bonus service, if we haven’t yet. Some of us, as the retention experts, may have already received informal water cooler requests for guidance on office colleagues’ personal papers (speaking of tax season in February). As if IG program development, big data, text mining and predictive analytics, IoT, mobile/BYOD, FOIA, eDiscovery, PII security, cloud, and social media aren’t enough to track, we should boldly expand our agenda in order to cover the massive – no, ubiquitous – range of topics that records management actually covers. Records are everywhere! Now, that should spark joy in our hearts.

Snapshot: College and University Retention Schedules

February 5th, 2015


George Despres
University Records Manager, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

Shortly after joining Brandeis to establish a records program, and being new to RIM as it applies to academia, I realized that it might be a good idea to review retention schedules from other colleges and universities (CUs) as part of my research. Higher Ed is an industry that generally encourages sharing of open information, in this case providing a view of retention schedules in the aggregate. Searching the Web with different browsers for published CU schedules, I built a document linking to over 40 CU schedules from various institutions. This document provides a novel, if small, glimpse into CU retention schedule trends and will hopefully be useful to other CU records managers and their colleagues who are establishing or reviewing schedules of their own (the Brandeis retention schedule is in its infancy). Each institutional schedule has its unique merits. If your CU retention schedule is published online and missing from this list, please send me a current link (gdespres@brandeis.edu), and I will be happy add it to, and improve, our document.

Granted, this sample is bound by my non-exhaustive search engine results, and it excludes schedules from some well known CUs that elect not to share such information online. Hence, “snapshot.” Some CUs have a records launch page with no schedule posted or linked. There’s also a preponderance of state CUs in our collection with regulations that would not apply to a private university like Brandeis. I don’t imply that you can just pick retention policy off the trees and plug it into your institution. Yet, while a schedule for college X would not necessarily apply to Brandeis, getting a broad profile of retention practice across many Higher Ed institutions is proving valuable for framing our own schedule, subject to internal iterations and final review.  For example, we found that no CU retained applications from prospective students who never attended (“non-matrics”) for more than 7 years. Unless Brandeis had some exotic arrangement that would require us to retain these longer – something that would be verified by our own research and standard, final authorization with our legal counsel – it’s a good bet that our retention period needn’t exceed standard practice and the reasonable needs of our admissions departments.  Each institution is unto itself. Yet, our findings show that while record category coverage varies among institutions, there is a general consistency among retention policies across most of the institutions, despite a few outlier practices.

Record Categories

One observation relates to the inclusion or exclusion of certain CU record categories. Coverage of different categories is rather varied in the schedules. Differing nomenclature could lead to a scarcity of hits on certain categories, so we tried to mitigate this factor in our searches by bundling various and synonymous names for certain categories in our survey (e.g., Copyright AND Intellectual Property; Advancement AND Development, etc.). We also performed keyword searches for specific document types (e.g., grade rosters) that might appear within certain categories, to mine applicable data.

While some of the schedules surveyed may currently be under expansion, coverage of core categories was less than expected. None of the schedules that we include are fledgling or skimpy as a whole in their category coverage, so the underrepresentation is unexplained. (Since this piece was first published, it was pointed out to me that some institutions mask certain departmental schedules while publishing a general schedule, so this may account for some of the category absences.) Athletics records are covered in only 35% of the schedules. Ironically, both library/info services categories and records management records/retention schedule are absent from 72% of the schedules surveyed, indicating that some of us info pros are not “eating our own dog food.” While safety and security record categories appeared underrepresented for such combustible record types (missing from 42% of the schedules), HR/personnel records are covered more consistently in 88% of the schedules. One might wonder how the other 12% would not have included this sensitive category in their schedules. Continuing/Adult education explicitly appears on only 21% of the schedules. However, some CUs may embed this category within the broader “student records” category, which is covered in all of the schedules in one way or another (thank goodness). In some cases, a lack of perfect one-to-one terminology mapping may have slightly skewed our results.

The following chart depicts coverage (inclusion) and exclusion percentages of selected CU record retention schedule categories from our survey collection (click to view):

Covered Not Covered

Retention Practices

While schedule category inclusion varies considerably among institutions, record retention periods are generally more uniform across most organizations. One contributing factor may have been consistent regulatory interpretations among state CUs. Federal and other codes (e.g., IRS: 7 years) also reach every institution, so this would account for some uniformity. Standard valuation and requirements for specific record types also drive consistency of practice. The following types, for example, tend to warrant permanent or very long preservation almost across the board: accreditation records, class lists, transcripts, alumni/donor files, and intellectual property and copyright records. Overlapping archival influence warrants permanent preservation of historical record groups, or portions of them. One key and common division among student records is that between records of students who enroll and prospective students who do not. Obviously, the latter category needs much shorter retention, as indicated above.

My Record Category descriptions are rolled up (generalized) to encompass various naming conventions for document families among the CUs. The following table shows retention ranges.

Table 2

Additional Observations

As with the record categories, certain metadata fields may or may not be employed among the CUs. Some go the length of stating the regulatory authority that warrants the retention policy. Others only state record type and retention period, which is understandable for employees and units who are stretched out with their workloads – better something than nothing, and less to maintain. There were surprisingly not many instances of Big Bucket corralling in the schedules that we reviewed.   In fact, some institutions are granular in their schedules, employing document type level division. There’s a propensity among a few to hold certain administrative records permanently – perhaps driven by paranoid (“just in case”) offices of record.

This is only a snapshot of a data sample, but it shows areas of consistency and variance among CU retention schedules. Along with our retention schedules listing, it is at the least a wonderfully nerdy way for a records manager to spend his or her time. At best, it can be used as a reference tool and baseline for retention schedule creation and maintenance in Higher Education – subject to local tailoring. Future batch retention schedule assessments can provide a basis for more detailed and broader studies, as well as improved professional discussion and understanding of policy trends in our trade.

My special thanks to Liana Shatova for compiling some of the data referenced in this posting.

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