Please keep this receipt for your records

Like many people, this morning I stopped to grab my morning caffeine fix on the way to work. As usual it led to an impromptu game of ‘20 questions’…

“Is this to take away?” – Yes it is.

“Would you like an extra shot?” – Yes please.

“Would you like chocolate sprinkled on top?” – Yes I would.

“Do you have a loyalty card?” – Yes I do.

“Would you like a receipt?” – Umm… I guess so. Always useful to have a receipt, right?

The paper was thrust into my hand, and before I could read it the nice waitress was already serving up an espresso macchiato to the next customer. It was only when I got to work did I notice those immortal words:

Please keep this receipt for your records

My inner records manager perked up. Suddenly, I was getting document retention and disposition guidance from a coffee barista. As I searched my wallet though I come across another receipt, this time from the pub I frequented at the weekend:

This copy to be retained by Customer

he reciepts in question (along with some hefty redactions just in case...)

The receipts in question (along with some hefty redactions just in case...)

‘Retained’? For how long? And why exactly do I need to keep this receipt for ‘my records’ – is there a legal requirement to do so? Will it provide my future biographer with a particular insight into my life?

This is why good records management is so necessary: whilst a wallet full of receipts is a mere inconvenience for me, imagine now the problems across large organisations or Government departments with people not knowing what to save, or how long to keep their stuff. Before you say it, no we can’t ‘just keep everything’ – where would you put it?

If you think about it, keeping stuff is expensive. Even the cost of retaining documents in digital form is expensive, especially when you factor in not only storage but maintenance, searching, presentation, obligations under FOI, DPA etc…

Instead of talking to people about ‘retention’, why not try a different approach? ‘Responsible disposition’ is a phrase I’ve stolen from an excellent presentation I attended recently at The National Archives. Disposal has a sort of ‘cleansing’ feeling about it – we certainly keep our filing systems lean and useful by getting rid of things when they are no longer needed. We save money, space, even electricity by doing this, so why aren’t we thinking about what records we can get rid of, rather than what to retain?

Remember, I do use the word ‘responsible’ – please don’t go round wiping the office servers on the advice of some random guy on a blog… What I mean is finding answers to the following four questions:

1.    Does information have ongoing operational or administrative value to my business? The coffee receipt will help me to identify where and when I spent my money this month, but after I’ve diligently audited my online bank statements it’s more than likely I won’t refer to it ever again. Organisations rely on information to inform sound decision and policy making, so consider what information is still in use, and what has been superseded.

2.    Does information have legal value to my business? As far as I know there is no legal requirement placed on me to provide evidence of my coffee purchases. Bear in mind though that there are some categories of records which are required to be kept under current UK law, so beware of the legal framework under which you operate.

3.    Does information have a financial value to my business? Imagine that I had purchased the world’s rarest and expensive coffee – one day the receipt might be worth something! As it happens it was a small skinny cappuccino, so it’s not likely to hold any kind of financial value to me.

4.    Does information have a historical value to my business? Had this been the coffee I purchased moments before proposing to my girlfriend, or after receiving some earth shattering personal news, I might want to keep all pieces of documentary evidence about that day for sentimental reasons. As it happens it was a regular Monday morning, and I was trying to bring myself out of a zombie-like slumber – I’m really not likely to look back and reminisce about this moment. For government information, The National Archives has published guidance on what types of records should be preserved forever, and stand ready to support organisations that hold ‘public records’.

 

So I’ve finished my rant about receipts. I’m sorry Caffè Nero, but I will not be keeping this receipt ‘for my records’ – my archival storage is reserved exclusively for those documents which hold the kinds of value described above.

If you’re wondering about applying this to your organisation’s document holdings, think about putting some rules in place around identifying the value of records at an early stage of the document ‘lifecycle’. Leaving it for a decade before reviewing it won’t help you understand its context, which is really important to support your decision to keep something. And to be honest, in a digital world that’s if after ten years you can even locate and access it!

13 comments

  1. David Underdown says:

    There are recommendations for how long to keep receipts, bank statements and similar for the purposes of tax returns and the like of course.

  2. Christine Hancock says:

    I was recently having a sort out and noticed that receipts printed within the last few years and kept because they were important purchases (a camera, electrical items) were now illegible as the print had faded to invisibility.
    Perhaps your coffee receipt would need preservation if you wanted to keep it.

  3. Sarah May says:

    Nice post, good way to focus on the issues. When it comes to research documentation (and data) the issue is somewhere between operational value and historical value. Its useful to remember that as the type of management is different for different values. So if you were keeping the receipt for expenses (the most common reason anyone keeps receipts) you might stuff it in an envelope, while if you were remembering the special day you might have a scrapbook. With research data there needs to be a point where it moves from operational to historical value and there may need to be further disposal at that point.

  4. David Matthew says:

    The whole reason for the First Review of files was to reduce the amount of material being kept and despite that the files end up at TNA even they should have been destroyed under the policy!. As far as ‘Responsible Disposition’ goes this sounds worrying, what is wrong with the current policies if they are applied!. Receipts make you think about MPs and the expenses scandal.

  5. Rob Johnson says:

    Christine – ‘Perhaps your coffee receipt would need preservation if you wanted to keep it’ – couldn’t have put it better myself!

    It is that process of understanding what I ‘want to keep’ which defines how I manage my documents. As David says above, there is guidance on how long to keep this sort of thing, but of course it is up to me to implement it in a way which balances my obligations with my resources. Keeping receipts which may be part of a warranty, or provide evidence of purchasing high value items as you suggest is very sensible indeed. Thank you also for pointing out the trouble of fading ink – a risk to long term preservation, just as old formats may prove the digital equivalent!

    Sarah, great response as well. Your point about the systems for managing these documents is a really important one – I would certainly take better care of a scrapbook as it has that sentimental value, rather than old envelopes. The challenge for doing this in a large organisation is that the lifecycle of information/data is often longer than that of the systems which hold it. This is particularly true of digital records, and if you don’t know what you want to keep, how can you plan for an efficient migration? Public records in the UK Government which hold historical value are identified under the Public Records Act 1958, and sent to The National Archives or other suitable repository.

    David, thanks for your comments. Absolutely right that retention policies need to be implemented so that organisations aren’t overwhelmed when they reach a ‘second review’. Digital records will inevitably cause this traditional model of appraisal to shift, and the earlier that records of value can be identified the more chance they will have of surviving.

  6. Steve Johnson says:

    Thought provoking as always. ‘Responsible Disposition’ sounds like the way forward but I agree that it is time consuming and not likely to be done well if left until there is no longer ‘any room in the cupboard’. All records need to have an identified the point at which they can be ‘reponsibly disposed’. Ideally this point needs to be identified at the point the record is identified or created. For most records retention will be based on time but for others an event may trigger their disposition e.g on death. Its likely that only Historical Value will be sufficient justification for Keep Forever. Keep up the good work

    1. David Matthew says:

      I disagree that the issue is time-consuming, it is not!. The ‘Responsible disposition’ clearly runs contrary to the existing policies and the system of First Review worked fine as long as it was carried out and was meant to ‘clear out the cupboards’ whilst retaining files that were needed for legal or business reasons or historical reasons. A decision at the moment of creation you cannot always be sure, e.g. the Falkland Islands and who thought that would have ended in a war. Death is certainly not a point for destroying material, it would mean all the records of Margaret Thatcher at No 10 would be destroyed!. How do you work out historical value in the future and that was the point of the Second Review at 25 years.

      1. David Underdown says:

        David M,

        I think this advice is intended more generally, rather than throgh the specific government lense you seem to be viewing it. A company will know that they are required to keep records of financial transactions for a certin number of years for tax (or other regulatory) purposes. After that they may destroy them (and in fact if they don’t it can cause them greater issues in terms of disclosure and the like if a legal case is brought against them).

        Volumes of records are also still increasing, it may be that rather than deleting material automatically, a schedule set up at point of creation triggers review of the records at an appropriate future point).

  7. Andrew Allsop says:

    Interesting post. Until I worked in a large high street retailer, (not just any retailer…!) a receipt was, well, a receipt, but there is so much mire information on that receipt that I was not aware of that when I found out just what was there I was rather amazed. Here is a list on your typical receipt:
    Name of the company.
    Full address of the company.
    Telephone number of the company.
    VAT number of the company.
    Barcode ofItem/s sold with description andprice and possible code to say whether item was reduced, returned, damaged, and other such information.
    How many items on this transaction.
    Balance to pay.
    Cash offered.
    Credit card last 3 numbers.
    Amount of discount.
    Reason for discount code.
    Staff discount if applicable.
    Staff number of person buying itemns if a member of staff.
    Tokens offered.
    “Thank you message”
    Last date for refund on items.
    Brief returns policy.
    Date of transaction.
    Till number.
    Time of transaction.
    Staff number ofd sales person.
    Transaction number.
    Transaction at that till.
    Transaction that day in store.
    Barcode of transaction.
    On the reverse general advertising blurb.

    From this the company could find out an awful lot, and this is only for your basic receipt, returns were much more informative as were some credit card transactions.

    1. Rob Johnson says:

      Hi Andrew, I had no idea there could be so much information on a receipt! What I love is the ‘Thank you message’ buried somewhere in the middle of all that data.

      Don’t know about you, but a couple of oddities for me are the ‘war and peace’ length receipts from WH Smiths, and the strange ‘square’ pieces of paper from my other favourite coffee hangout, Costa.

  8. Eva Lawrence says:

    Sometimes it’s the items that slip past ‘responsible disposal’ that become historically interesting, because they throw new light on a subject that wasn’t considered at the time. For instance, the old stock list on the back of the manuscript draft of a conventional business letter, rather than its formal contents.

    1. Rob Johnson says:

      Thanks Eva, I think you’re right. It can be current context which adds value to an ‘old’ record, and gives it that extra significance which will determine how long it needs to be kept for. There are many examples of historical records here in the Archives which relate to subjects which are still very pertinent to current events.

      Government departments and agencies who deal with ‘public records’ therefore need to set appropriate triggers for assessing the value of records. The way digital records are stored and managed should assist in sifting through the ephemera to identify records which can help account for key Government decision making and policy implementation.

  9. David Matthew says:

    Rob,

    I couldn’t agree more about the relevance to current history. The anonymous name of the creator of the National Fund for the National Debt in 1928 as reported in the Press recently, if you go to the Treasury file in TNA the name has been partially erased at the time but seems to be readable, although other people added to the Fund. The question of whether the £500,000 could be used to reduce rather than eliminate the National Debt was raised with the donor who visited the Treasury at the time, which is the sticking point today. The file clearly shows Treasury’s reluctance to raise these technical issues, in other words let someone else worry about it!…

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