SOAS University of London

Records Management Guidance: Vital Records- How to

Identifying Vital Records

It can be difficult to divide records into vital and non-vital. Some records might not be strictly vital as the School could function without them, but the effort in replacing them or their historical value might be such that they should be given the same level of protection as records essential to the business of the School.  You will need to perform a risk assessment to decide how vital the record is, considering how serious the impact will be if the record were lost, and how soon you would feel it. The best approach is to divide records into the following four categories (please note the examples are not exhaustive and will vary from section to section):

Classification of records: Examples
Vital: records without which the School cannot function. These records are essential to the core business of the School (this also includes records which are critical for implementing emergency procedures in the event of a disaster, such as key staff contact details, business continuity plans etc.)
  • Records which give evidence of the legal status of the School (e.g. the School Charter)
  • Records which protect the assets and interests of the School
  • Minutes and Papers of committee meetings in the formal committee structure, particularly where major policy decisions are taken
  • Current accounts payable and received
  • The School’s business plan
  • Student assessment records
  • Research information including on-going research and reports of research projects
  • Records which are subject to a legal requirement to be kept for a certain amount of time
  • Historical records if needed for evidential or other legal purposes
  • Key staff contact details
  • Staff and student records
  • Next of kin details
  • Contingency plans


Important: records important to the continued operation of the School, they can be recreated from original sources but only at considerable time and expense
  • Procedures
  • Training manuals
  • Teaching materials
  • Curricula
  • Teaching timetables
  • Minutes of some meetings
  • Current REF submission


Useful: records which, if lost, would cause temporary inconvenience but are replaceable


  • Most correspondence
  • Records of old curricula


Non-essential: Records which have no value beyond the immediate purpose
  • Staff and student circulars about one-off events which are now completed
  • Advertisements

NB Historical Records: Historical records that help understand a part of the School’s development may not be essential for the operation of the School but have significant value for a wide range of historical research and therefore may be worth preserving on the same level of protection as a vital record. Records of historical value are generally highlighted on the SOAS retention schedule and should be transferred to the School’s Archive so that they are covered as part of the Special Collections business continuity plan.

How to Protect Electronic Vital Records

  • Electronic vital records must be stored on central servers so that they are protected by appropriate back-up and disaster recovery.
  • Do not store vital records on portable hardware, such as USBs, DVDs/CDs
  • Do not store vital records on a laptop hard drive or on your personal hard drive
  • For vital records that need to be retained for a long time, use a readable format such as PDF/PDFA or plain text or rich text format.

How to Protect Hard Copy Vital Records

Vital Records which are only available in paper format should be duplicated, in the same or original format depending on requirements, and the originals and copies stored in separate locations if possible. There are several ways of doing this:

  • Scan and save electronically: However, if you also want to destroy the records then it is more complicated because the records will need to reach BS 10008:2008 the standard for legal admissibility of electronic records. Please contact the Corporate Records Manager and Archivist if you are considering this
  • Off-site storage:  Copies may be stored with our off-site storage provider who specialise in secure storage.  Please see the records management pages for more guidance on using off-site storage
  • Store in another SOAS building: This offers the least protection due to the close proximity of the buildings so it is important to weigh up the risk of losing the records against the cost of storing elsewhere. If storing onsite, check the environment for potential hazards and either take steps to protect the records against these potential hazards, such as storing records a certain distance off the ground, or seek alternative accommodation.
  • If duplication is impracticable or legally unacceptable, fire protection safes must be used to protect the documents.

What next?

Once you have a list of records, it is important to document the measures that need to be taken to protect them and share these with your colleagues. It is important that a range of people can identify the vital records and know the measures in place as you do not know who will be in the office at the time. It is recommended that all vital records are listed under the relevant sections business continuity plan.

It is important to review this every year as part of the review of your business continuity plan as vital records can change over time.

It is also important that staff complete the vital records schedule so that there is a central list of all of the institution’s vital records. Every year, this will be circulated to Records Management Group members and each section will be asked to update this. The vital records log is retained by the Directorate electronically. 

Help Available

  • IT can provide help and advice regarding IT systems and software and back up. Please contact the IT Helpdesk for further advice.
  • Although the Corporate Records Manager and Archivist cannot identify your records, we can provide guidance and advice on records management issues and work in progress. 

Records Management Guidance: Vital Records- Introduction