In our organization (we are a federal government contractor with 650+
people and 5 sites in Texas and Louisiana), there is a distinction
between which documents are or are not records, regardless of their form
(paper or electronic. However, since all "records" are "documents," we
are in the process of merging our records management procedures manual
into the overall document control and management procedures manual to
create one comprehensive document control program. The "document vs.
record" distinction come into play with the purpose and scope of the
document. All WORKING documents (drafts under construction or version
that have not yet been approved for use by the owning function) are
non-record documents. Copies of documents that are kept for
quick-reference convenience by functions other than the one responsible
for the actual record copy are considered non-record REFERENCE
documents. If the document is ACTIVE (appropriately reviewed, approved
for use, published in the corporate library by the owning function under
our version control procedures, and in use by our employees) and is use
to make business decision, the document is automatically a record. If
the document is INACTIVE (completed or closed), it is a record for which
the retention period has begun; it can no longer be used to make
business decisions, but it retains its value as evidential or historical
information. We have still other groups of corporate documents that are
not yet considered records, but are considered to be corporate--and
therefore, controlled--documents. These consist of: 1) master copies of
forms or templates sued in procedures, and 2) studies and reports upon
which we have not yet reacted, and may not ever react. These
studies/reports are kept in our corporate library as valuable documents,
but since they are FOR INFORMATION ONLY and are not used to conduct
business, they are not considered records. If the day comes when we
pull these studies from the library and actually apply them to business
decisions, they will instantly become ACTIVE records. This process and
the training we conducted has, so far, been very beneficial in keeping
us out of trouble and in compliance with ISO 9000 and 14000.
I'm interested to see what everyone else on the listserv is doing with
From: Richard Pearce-Moses [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Monday, October 20, 2003 10:08 AM
Subject: Definition of Record vs Document
I've been struggling with the definitions of document and record quite a
bit recently. (Everyone needs a hobby ;^) If I've learned one thing,
it's that the definitions change with context. For example, in
government, something may fall within the scope of the public records
law, but not within the business record exception to the hearsay rule in
the Federal Rules of Evidence. That same thing may or may not be
covered by FOIA.
Then we get to more philosophical distinctions from records management,
which distinguishes between official records, record copies, and
One of the real challenges of defining these terms is that people often
use the general term 'record' or 'document' when they mean something
more narrow. That, no surprise, leads to enormous confusion for people
using the same term with very different understandings of what those
terms mean. In fact, some people use document as a synonym of record,
while others use them to refer to two very distinct things.
Given that, here are my current definitions (with notes) of document and
record (comments welcome).
-- Richard Pearce-Moses
Director of Digital Government Information
Arizona State Library and Archives
n. ~ 1. Any written or printed work. - 2. Information or data fixed in
some media. - 3. Information or data fixed in some media, but which is
not part of the official record; a non-record. - 4. A written or printed
work of a legal or official nature that may be used as evidence or
proof; a record.
Document is traditionally considered to mean text fixed on paper,
especially those that are flat (nearly two-dimensional). However,
document2 includes all media and formats. Photographs, drawings, sound
recordings, and videos as well as word processing files, spreadsheets,
web pages, and database reports are now generally considered to be
Like records, documents are traditionally understood to have content,
context, and structure. However, the nature of those attributes may
change in electronic documents. Electronic formats can present
information in complex layers that are three-dimensional or have a
non-linear structure. The phrase 'four-corners document' is sometimes
used to distinguish between an electronic document that can be printed
on paper without loss of information from more complex, three
dimensional documents. Similarly, some electronic documents' content do
not have fixed content, but may change over time; for example, a word
processing document that pulls data from a constantly changing database.
These documents are described as dynamic documents to distinguish them
from traditional, fixed documents
In some contexts, document is used to refer to an item that is not a
record[2, 3], such as drafts, duplicates of record copies, and materials
not directly relating to business activities. In this sense, documents
not usually not included on retention schedules and can be disposed of
However, in other contexts, document is used synonymously with
record[2, 3]. In this sense, record connotes an official document,
especially the final version of those created in the routine course of
business with the specific purpose of keeping information for later use
as evidence or proof of the thing to which it refers.
In some instances, there are clear distinctions between a document and a
record. For example, in civil litigation in the United States all
documents held by an organization are discoverable. However, those
documents are admissible as evidence only if they fall within the
definition of business record in the Federal Rules of Evidence (or state
Document is often used interchangeably with publication, although this
use has the sense that there are many identical copies in distribution.
This use common in state and federal depository libraries that collect
A document's content may reflect formula and convention in its
structure, including formal rules of representation, literary style, and
specialized language that reflect the author's political, professional,
or social cultures. A document's physical characteristics may also
follow conventions relating to the medium, organization of internal
elements, and presentation of the information.
n. ~ 1. A written or printed work of a legal or official nature that may
be used as evidence or proof; a document. - 2. Data or information that
has been fixed on some medium; that has content, context, and structure;
and that is used as an extension of human memory or to demonstrate
accountability. - 3. Data or information in a fixed form that is created
or received in the course of individual or institutional activity and
preserved as evidence of that activity for future reference. - 4. An
instrument filed for public notice (constructive notice). - 5. Audio * A
phonograph record (see sound recording). - 6. Computing * A collection
of related fields treated as a unit, such as a row in a relational
database table.- 7. Description * An entry describing a work in a
catalog; a catalog record.
The use of the general term record when referring to a particular type
of record inevitably leads to confusion because attributes of the
particular type are not conveyed by the general term. In particular, see
business record, which is defined in the Rules of Federal Evidence, and
public record, which is defined in law. Similarly, records are not
synonymous with archives; while an archives collects records, not all
records merit on-going preservation.
A record[1, 2, 3] has fixed content, structure, and context.
Content is the text, data, symbols, numerals, images, sound and vision
that make up the substance of the record. A record's ability to fix
information so that it can be repeated, recited, or recalled at a later
date functions as an extension of memory and is at the heart of the
concept of record. A record may be created specifically to preserve
information over time or to prevent future misinterpretation of that
information, although a record cannot be presumed to be reliable without
authentication. However, any item - no matter how ephemeral it was
intended to be - may serve as a record if it is later used as evidence
of the thing to which it refers.
Fixity is the quality of content being stable and resisting change. To
preserve memory effectively, the record's content must be consistent
over time. Records made on mutable media, such as electronic records,
must be managed so that it is possible to demonstrate that the content
has not mutated or been altered. A record may be fixed without being
static. A computer program may allow a user to analyze and view data
many different ways. The database itself may be considered a record if
the underlying data is fixed and the same analysis and resulting view
remain the same over time.
Structure refers to a record's physical characteristics and internal
organization of the contents. A record's structure is the form that
makes the content tangible and intelligible. Physical characteristics
include components and methods of assembly, such as paper, ink, seals,
and font families, or character sets, encoding, and file formats.
Structure also includes the intellectual organization of a document. A
record's structure may be very simple, such as plain text on a page; it
may be organized into an outline or sections with headings; or it may be
highly complex, including a preamble, the body, and the signatures of
witnesses. A document's structure is contained within boundaries, which
define the record as a unit and give it identity by distinguishing it
from other information. A record may consist of many physically or
logically discrete parts that function together as unit, such as several
pages or data values from many tables. However, those parts must be
bound together in some fashion.
Context is the organizational, functional, and operational circumstances
surrounding a record's creation, receipt, storage, or use. Context
includes a record's date and place of creation, compilation, or issue,
and its relationship to other records.
Records may be in any format, including text, images, or sound. However,
the concept of record is ultimately independent of any specific carrier
or format. Paper records may be microfilmed, and electronic records may
be transferred from memory to disk to paper.
A records is often unique, whereas a publication is always created in
multiple copies. However, a record may be a single copy of many that has
been selected for preservation or special treatment (a record copy). For
example, a publisher may keep one copy of each publication as a record.
Record[2, 3] is sometimes used with the sense of record copy or official
record, a complete, final, and authoritative version that is preserved.
This sense of record is distinguished from non-record or document,
which includes copies of the official record or materials that are not
scheduled and can be disposed of without authorization.
Record is frequently used synonymously with document. To the extent the
vernacular uses record to refer to any document, without specification,
the terms are synonymous. However, the concept of record is independent
of format, and it includes things that are clearly not documents. For
example, an artifact may serve as a record if it is preserved to bolster
human memory or to demonstrate accountability.
Records are sometimes distinguished from papers, with records referring
to items that were generated as the result of routine activities or a
transactions, especially those of an organization. Papers refer to
documents created on a more or less ad hoc basis, especially those of an
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