What are Vital Records?

The term ‘vital records’ refers to that collection of information which is essential for the ongoing operation of your business, without which your business may fail. A more formal, text book definition is:

“Records that are essential for the continuous operation of a business and must be specially protected against possible disasters, both natural and man-made.”

Vital records aren’t just ‘secret’ things like formulae, patents, specifications and source code. Vital records are also records of company registration, tax records, contracts, agreements, etc.

There isn’t one set of ‘static’ vital records which you can put away once and then forget about. Most organizations create vital records each and every day as part of the business process. Vital records are dynamic.

What is special about managing Vital Records?

If we agree that a loss of vital records may negatively impact your business then we should also agree that we need to take special care to ensure that vital records are always available and always readable.

We wouldn’t for example, store a vital record on poor quality paper in a mouldy cabinet with a resident mouse population. We wouldn’t store the only electronic copy of a vital record on the oldest computer and oldest disk drive in the office. We wouldn’t neglect to take regular backups of our vital records. We wouldn’t store digital copies of a vital record within an unsupported and unmaintained software system that will soon become unreadable.

Vital records are special and therefore deserve special treatment to ensure that they are always available, always stored on current technology and always protected. For example, in a fire-proof safe or backed up weekly with the backup stored safely offsite.

What are our Objectives when managing Vital Records?

“To store an original record or facsimile, (an exact copy or reproduction), in such a manner that it is protected from harm or deterioration and can be retrieved and viewed or read at some indeterminate time in the future”

The technologies available to us are limitless and range from biscuit tins sealed with solder and wrapped in sewn hessian bags, as used in the First World War, to the very latest digital storage technologies.

How do you protect Vital Records and ensure that they are readable?

First, you need to identify and list all vital records, regardless of format. If you don’t know what vital records you have and where they are, you cannot preserve them.

Once you have a list (remember to keep it up to date) the best method of preservation depends upon the format of the vital records.

If paper, then ensure it is acid-free, museum-quality paper stored in a climate-controlled and fire-protected environment.

If your vital records are in digital format, then ensure that they are stored on the latest technology device and supported by the latest technology operating system and authoring software. Most importantly, have a formal program of review and transfer in place.

For example, review all digital vital records on a two-year cycle. If the technology used to store and manage them and make them readable is more than four-years old consider moving the vital records to newer technology.

Newer technology includes computer servers, operating system software and authoring software like MS Word or Excel. Note that it is no use moving old WordStar files to the latest hardware and operating systems if the authoring software, WordStar, no longer runs or operates on the latest operating system software because your vital records will be unreadable.

Obviously, also ensure that your vital records are included in your backup and disaster recovery programs.

What Format?

Vital records are in many more formats than paper, for example:

  • Microsoft Word format on a local or shared disk drive
  • Microsoft Excel in the Cloud (Office 365)
  • A fax stored on the disk drive of a multifunction device
  • Lotus notes format on a Unix server
  • Microsoft mail format on a Windows server
  • Voice mail format on a Windows server
  • Video image on CD or DVD or local or shared disk drive
  • Transaction records in our corporate SQL Server or Oracle databases on the Windows 2016 server
  • AutoCAD files
  • Accounting files in MYOB or QuickBooks.


If you do not have a vital records preservation program in place please:

  1. Hire or acquire an expert to identify and list your vital records and prepare a vital records preservation action plan.
  2. Formally review the vital records preservation action plan at least once a year.
  3. Ensure that your expert and your IT department work together to implement an acceptable, cost efficient solution using proven technology that is consistent with your IT direction and business goals.
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