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Archives and Records Management (ARM)

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Archives and Records Management (ARM) offers assistance and advice on the management of records specific to the Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine communities. Click on the above navigation links to find out more about our services, for links to useful documents to get your project started, and for updates on University records policies and guidelines.


Archivist Attends APHA Conference Through Sewell Award
Heather Cristiano

Heather Cristiano, Archivist for the Harvard School of Public Health, poses in the stacks at the Center for the History of Medicine, Countway Library.

In August, Harvard School of Public Health’s newly appointed archivist, Heather Cristiano, was awarded a Sewell Stipend to attend the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting. This stipend is sponsored by the Grace and Harold Sewell Memorial Fund, which was established with the intention of increasing librarians’ effectiveness at providing reliable/relevant information to public health professionals. Heather was the only (and rumored to be the first!) archivist to receive the award.

As a Sewell Stipend recipient, Heather attended the APHA’s annual meeting in Boston from Sunday, November 3rd until Wednesday, November 6th under the mentorship of David Hemenway, Professor of Health Policy in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). As part of the mentoring experience, Heather attended two sessions that included presentations from Dr. Hemenway on gun violence prevention, and spent time informally connecting with Dr. Hemenway and his colleagues to learn more about public health within the context of Harvard.

In addition to these requirements, Heather also volunteered with the Spirit of 1848 caucus at a late-night lecture given by Winona LaDuke, and sought informational interviews from Spirit of 1848 caucus members Nancy Krieger, Professor of Social Epidemiology Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH and Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Professor of Global Health/Social and Behavioral Health Sciences at the University of Toronto.


A panoramic view of the expo at APHA’s annual meeting at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, November 2013.

Heather’s ultimate goal for her conference experience was to come away with a better sense of both contemporary and historic public health issues, particularly those outside the context of a university. This knowledge, in turn, would allow her to make better strategic collecting decisions for the newly formed Harvard School of Public Health archives.

Of course, Heather came away from this four day conference experience with much more than she had bargained for! Her main takeaways included:

  1. Public health issues are interconnected.  During his opening address for the conference, Michael Marmot connected income inequality with health disparities; in her presentation Climate Change, Public Health and Indigenous Peoples, Winona LaDuke reported increases in incidents of violent crimes, traffic crashes, and crimes against women in communities exposed to fracking; Food is Medicine and Prevention focused exclusively on the concept that adequate nutrition reduces health care costs; Farm to Preschool  emphasized connecting schools with local growers, which in turn improves the local economy as well as the health of individual families—these are only a few examples of conference sessions that painted a clear picture of how public health issues are interrelated.
  2. How crucial (and visible) an archival perspective is to modern public health research. It was fascinating to note the many different presentations that utilized historic research: Richard Mizelle’s presentation on the relationship of population displacement to obesity and diabetes; Teddy Roosevelt’s pioneering decision to institute “public cooling” during the 1896 heat wave by distributing ice blocks to New York City residents; Dora Anne Mill’s review of the role of Maine public health policies during the 1918 flu epidemic;  the crucial convergence of Medicare, the civil rights movement, and commitment from President Lyndon B. Johnson that led to the desegregation of hospitals in the 1960s. These four examples are only a small sampling of the thought-provoking research presented at this year’s conference that relied heavily on a historical perspective on public health.
  3. The importance of looking back at our history and making conscious departures from the status quo. In the session Sandy Hook Reflections and Solutions, presenting author Timothy A. Akers began with Einstein’s quote “problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” This theme reemerged time and time again—that only through reflection can we move forward to a better solution for the future. Along these lines, David Hemenway stated in  Legal Approaches Targeting Firearm Manufacturers and Distributors  that in order to address illegal firearm use, it is imperative that our culture shift from current methods of blame and political finger-pointing to a change in social norms in conjunction with law. Making a direct comparison to motor vehicles, Dr. Hemenway spoke about how our culture has shifted its perspective on drunk driving; as a culture we now know to recognize a dangerous situation before it happens, and take away keys from an inebriated driver. Could we not also develop a similar concern for friends and family members who are experiencing tough emotional times, and offer to temporarily store their guns away in a safe (and unknown) place?

Heather was grateful for this conference experience, as well as the opportunities afforded to her through the Sewell award, which has further developed her understanding of public health from the perspective of the professional and increased her understanding of public health patrons’ roles and needs.

Improve the Organization of Your Electronic Files

We have recently received several requests from departments looking for guidance in organizing (or re-organizing) their shared network of folders and electronic documents. After years of growth, departments are finding that their shared drives have grown and evolved without any real oversight –and now things are messy! It may take a half hour or more to find the document that is being sought… precious and expensive time wasted. The good news is that establishing a new structure, or even cleaning up the old one, is a completely manageable process. The following six steps will help guide you through the process of creating and implementing a new structure in your department or office:

Step 1: Review your existing file structure to identify what isn’t working. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have too many files? Are some redundant?
  • Do you need to establish better naming conventions, because “Jen’s files” doesn’t mean anything to anyone in your office anymore? (for more about naming conventions, see this post on planning for a “paperless office.”)
  • Has the nature of your department’s work changed over time so that now you have a lot of unused folders that you aren’t sure how to manage?
  • Are you frequently unsure which is the “final version”?
  • Does it take too long to find the document you need “right away”?

Also, take some time to think about what DOES work:

  • Do the Finance folks have a good electronic file system, but the Communications folks do not? If so, what can you learn from Finance?
  • Do you have good version control systems for final drafts? Could this method be used department-wide?

You may not need to change everything, but you do need to be able to identify what works well and what needs improvement.

Step 2: Communicate! Creating a new structure for shared electronic files requires a lot of buy-in. A project like this is best undertaken with at least a few conversations about how files are currently managed and used by your staff, and what they think will improve the system. Creating and implementing a new file structure will require time to adjust, and good communication about how things are changing will help mitigate any anxiety about learning to do things differently. Engage your staff in the process so that they are more likely to maintain the changes you are trying to make.

Step 3: Identify a few “big buckets” to serve as a new file structure or as top levels of folders in a new hierarchy. These buckets should relate directly to the main functional areas of your department. While you can theoretically have as many of these buckets as you need, we suggest aiming for fewer than ten to keep things manageable. These buckets should have descriptive names that are clear and intuitive. Avoid personal names, if possible.

Step 4: Depending on how many sub-folders are necessary, identify smaller buckets within each of the top level big buckets. The same principles for naming and number apply.

Step 5: Take a few minutes to document your new structure. Depending on the size of your office and the complexity/volume of your files, documenting your big and little buckets goes a long way towards getting everyone on the same page. This documentation should answer the following questions:

  • What goes in each bucket and why?
  • How do these buckets relate to your paper files?
  • Are there any special naming conventions? (for more about naming conventions, see this post on planning for a “paperless office.”)
  • How do these records relate to the Harvard University General Records Schedule?

Use this guide to train new employees and make sure the conventions and structure you agreed upon will continue to be used and maintained.

Step 6: The final step is to address how you will move your active files into the new structure. The good news is that you have a few options. 1) You could decide to transfer your existing files into the new structure, changing file names as necessary. Undertake this step with care so as not to lose anything. You’ll likely find that you’ve got some files or documents leftover after everything has been transferred. Though we don’t usually advise creating “miscellaneous” folders, you might consider keeping these files together in a folder labeled “outdated,” “orphaned files,” or another title that clarifies these files are no longer useful but perhaps shouldn’t be deleted. Or, 2) you could choose to implement your new system, filing newly created files into it and copying existing records into the new structure as you need them, and maintain the old system as a record of the previous structure and a repository for any unused or outdated files that remain. Both of these approaches have merit, so it will be helpful to consider your office practice and documentation strategies to ensure that files are not inadvertently lost through lack of current use.

You can find more information on managing your shared electronic network in these articles:

The Archives and Records Management staff at the Countway Library has assisted with projects to “clean up” shared file networks around HMS and would be happy to address questions, concerns, and share what we have learned. We even have some nice templates for documenting your new structure. Please contact us at: arm@hms.harvard.edu.



A Step Forward For Two Media Generations Back
Meghan Bannon, seated at the Center's FRED workstation, processing 3.5" floppy diskettes found in the papers of Judah Folkman

Meghan Bannon, seated at the Center’s FRED workstation, processing 3.5″ floppy diskettes found in the papers of Judah Folkman (1933-2008)

Perhaps you used 3.5” floppy diskettes routinely in what now seems like a technological lifetime ago. Or maybe, somewhere, in a shoe box is a stash of ZIP disks you can’t part with, though they seem useless. Obsolete media has long plagued archives and manuscripts professionals.  How can we provide access to the primary sources that serve as the backbone of our historical record when we can’t access, describe, and make available the contents of the media on which those records were created, saved, and revised?

This year, the Center for the History of Medicine has been implementing, programmatically, a plan for handling the increasing number of electronic records accompanying new acquisitions of professional papers and institutional records. Why? Right now, four of the five collections currently being arranged and described by Center staff for research use include 5.25” and 3.5” floppy disks, ZIP disks, flash drives, CDs, and DVDs. To ensure that these records are not altered, that they remain arranged hierarchically in their original directory structures, retain their dates of creation, and are preserved, new workflows have had to be developed. These workflows are derived from the principles of  digital forensics professionals and are now being actualized through the tools developed by that community.

The Center now has an electronic records processing station equipped with a FRED (a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device), external drives for obsolete media, and software enabling the imaging and extraction of electronic records. Our practices, informed by research in the field, are still emerging. As processes are refined, we will undoubtedly recover from media we thought unusable drafts of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, presentations, and data that will add to the richness of our collections. We look forward to working with donors to acquire collections that they previously thought impossible to donate or make usable for research. Truly a step forward!

Looking to Go Paperless? Use these tips to get your project off the ground! pt. 5

Paper and electronic file systems will benefit from regular evaluation. Does the structure still work for you? Documenting your system will put everyone on the same page.

Now that you’ve invested time, resources, and money into going paperless, resist the urge to consider the transition completed until you have taken the time to evaluate and document your new procedures.

Has “going paperless” provided the outcome you were expecting? Do you find that you have a clear and Harvard University General Records Schedule-compliant process in place for incoming paper? Were there hiccups along the way that you hadn’t anticipated? Now is the time to tweak your process, assess the efficiency of your new folder and file structures, and perhaps even reevaluate your original goals. Take a few moments to make sure that records with special needs (e.g. sensitive information) are still being protected, and that your whole system is being backed up properly. Evaluation is an ongoing process for paperless offices, as the folder and file system you’ve created to manage your records evolves as the needs or work of the office changes.

Your documentation doesn’t have to be extensive, but you should provide enough information so that your staff, co-workers, or a new employee can all quickly learn about the filing structures in place at your office. Call it a “Master List” if you like; this document should detail not just what you file and why, but also how your colleagues should name and file new information, and what procedures are in place for making changes.

Direct staff involvement in the establishment of your new procedures has two main benefits: a better overall system and increased compliance. A well-developed folder and file system will more likely result if created by the very users who work with the documents being named and who have relevant, pertinent comments and ideas. The result will be a fine-tuned, efficient system that makes perfect sense for the way your office actually works with its documents. The chances of compliance are increased exponentially if the system is created by those who will be using it on a day-to-day basis or those who are directly affected by it rather than a system imposed from the top down. Direct involvement also engenders a feeling of teamwork, pride, and ownership, which creates the buy-in crucial for long-term application.

This is the final blog post in a five part series on how to start and manage a paperless office project. We hope that this guide has been helpful to your project planning discussions. The Archives and Records Management staff at the Countway Library has assisted with many paperless office projects around HMS and would be happy to address questions, concerns, and share what we have learned. Please contact us for an initial conversation about achieving a paperless office at: arm@hms.harvard.edu.

Looking to Go Paperless? Use these tips to get your project off the ground! pt. 4

Naming conventions allow you to know at a glance what information a document contains without opening it. Which of these two document names is more informative?

Imagine that you’ve just completed a large outsourced scanning project; you’ve spent a great deal to have all your documents scanned, and now you’ve got disks of your all scanned files in hand. All set, right? But once you go to open up the files you realize that the disks actually contain document after document with computer generated names that mean nothing to you, let alone bear any relation to the information in these records. The amount of clicking and opening of documents one after another just to find the information you need is quickly frustrating. At this point you aren’t sure you’ve maintained access to the information in your records at all, let alone improved it.

Even if you are planning to go paperless using only resources available in house, you aren’t safe from this problem. Unless you think to name your documents at the point of scanning, or work with your vendor to create an appropriate index, you could spend hours sorting through a bunch of electronic documents with no way of telling one from the other–not efficient at all!

Adopting Naming Conventions

Effective folder and file naming is the cornerstone for building a successful paperless office. The names you assign to your electronic documents constitute the foundation of management for your office. Naming records consistently, logically and in a predictable way will distinguish similar records from one another at a glance. Beyond the ability to browse file names effectively and efficiently, naming records according to agreed conventions will also make file naming easier for colleagues because they will not have to re-think the process each time they create a new document. However, the key to successfully executing this strategy is that everyone must adhere to the file naming policy set in place.

Some useful tips for developing naming conventions:

  1. Keep file names short, but meaningful.
  2. Avoid unnecessary repetition and redundancy in file names and file paths.
  3. If using a date in the file name, always state the date ‘back to front’, and use four digit years, two digit months and two digit days: YYYYMMDD or YYYYMM or YYYY or YYYY-YYYY.
  4. When including a personal name in a file name give the family name first followed by the first name or initial.
  5. The file names of records relating to recurring events should include the date and a description of the event.
  6. The file names of correspondence should include the name of the correspondent, an indication of the subject, the date of the correspondence and whether it is incoming or outgoing correspondence.
  7. The file name of an email attachment should include the name of the correspondent, an indication of the subject, the date of the correspondence, ‘attch,’ and an indication of the number of attachments sent with the covering email.
  8. The version number of a record should be indicated in its file name by the inclusion of ‘V’ followed by the version number and, where applicable, ‘Draft.’

Please note that it is most important to establish naming conventions that are useful to your office and reflective of your work. And most importantly–it key to not just to have naming conventions, but to use them!

Contact us at arm@hms.harvard.edu for more information on going establishing naming conventions for your electronic records.

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