SOAS University of London

Vital Records at SOAS

What are vital records?

The term ‘vital’ describes something that is absolutely necessary or essential. It is also an old-fashioned term for something that is life-threatening, such as an injury, and both uses are helpful when discussing vital records.

‘Vital records’ are those records that are identified by SOAS as unquestionably necessary for the School to continue to operate in the event of a major disaster, when all or some other records and information may be lost or inaccessible.

They make up only about 5% of the entirety of the School’s records (not including all of our information, documents and data) - but they are absolutely critical to helping the School to resume its operations during or after an emergency or disaster situation.

Vital records include those records which are required to recreate the School’s legal and financial status, to preserve its rights, and to ensure that it can continue to fulfil its obligations to its stakeholders in the event of a disaster - the School’s Royal Charter of 5 June 1916 and the original statutes is a good example.

Vital records may be in any format - for example, paper, digital or microfilm.

The records’ original format, in which it was created, can often be essential in proving their authenticity, especially in a court of law. For this reason, colleagues should seek advice from the Records Manager and Archivist ( before scanning or otherwise digitising records for business continuity or remote working purposes, as we need to ensure we can permanently protect and access the original record that we need in the event of a catastrophe.

Why do we need to identify them?

It is necessary to identify vital records to ensure that the records remain secure, accessible and easily locatable, even during a disaster. The vital records form a vital part of disaster recovery and business continuity planning.

It is also important that we are targeting resources effectively. SOAS needs to protect the right records, not spend a large amount of resources storing non-essential records in the most secure way whilst leaving vital records open to vulnerability.

What do we mean by ‘disaster’?

The School may be subject to a number of disaster situations that force it to stop functioning in some way and mean we need to be able to access our vital records quickly and easily. Some are rare and may never occur, but others are far more likely to occur at some point:

  • Cyber security/ransomware attack, or physical security breaches and thefts of School property
  • Terrorist attack impacting on the School people, buildings and infrastructure
  • Infectious disease epidemic or pandemic forcing School functions to cease or take place remotely with little warning
  • Natural disasters or severe weather events that might cause damage to property and infrastructure, power outages, flooding, fire, pollution etc.

There are also specific circumstances which, whilst they are unpleasant for humans, can be fatal to the integrity and readability of physical records formats.

Things like pest infestation and deterioration over time (made worse by inappropriate storage or handling): paper can turn brittle and yellow, photographic images may fade, and film-based dyes can fade, become distorted and shrink from “vinegar syndrome”, and digital files can suffer from ‘bitrot’ and become corrupt, and hardware or software can become obsolete in a matter of years.

How can I identify our vital records?

On average, less than 5% of records are identified as vital. Although losing most records will cause inconvenience, you can often work around or recreate records. Vital records are the ones required in order to operate.

There is no definitive list of vital records and what constitutes a vital record will vary from section to section across the School. To identify your vital records you should consider the following:

  1. Identify the key functions, business processes and stakeholders of your department e.g. teaching and research, student registration and administration, handling accounts etc.
  2. Identify the impact of not providing these key functions
  3. Identify the records needed to support or document these functions and processes. The summary report of the information survey of your department may help with this.
  4. Identify which of these records are vital i.e. Can the functions these records relate to be re-established in the event of the loss of these records? If so, the record is not vital. Also consider that records can be vital for varying lengths of time. E.g., a current student record of marks is vital as the information is needed to know whether a student can graduate whereas records of a student’s marks 20 years ago are less important.
  5. Identify how long you can carry out these key functions without the records
What next? Find out more about how to identify and protect vital records