The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Tennessee County Municipal Advisory Service

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Electronic Records

Reference Number: MTAS-522
Tennessee Code Annotated
Reviewed Date: January 31, 2009
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City governments can now use computers as a tool for both creating and maintaining original records and for reproducing existing paper records onto other storage media. Any records required to be kept by a government official in Tennessee may be maintained on a computer or removable computer storage media, including CD-ROMs, instead of in bound books or as paper records. [1]  But in order to do so, the following standards must be met:

1. The information must be available for public inspection, unless it is required by law to be a confidential record;

2. Due care must be taken to maintain any information that is a public record for the entire time it is required by law to be retained;

3. All data generated daily and stored within the computer system must be copied to computer storage media daily, and computer storage media more than one week old must be stored off site (at a location other than where the original is maintained); and

4. The official with custody of the information must be able to provide a paper copy of the information to a member of the public requesting a copy. [2]

These standards, however, do not require the government official to sell or provide the computer media upon which the information is stored or maintained.

Caveats and Concerns
All of these new technologies bring our offices new capabilities but also new problems and dangers. As the provisions regarding each of these new developments indicate, extra safeguards are necessary with electronic records. If you consider for a moment the true nature of electronic records, you can see why precautions are necessary.

Fragility
Computer records are nothing more than magnetic impulses embedded in a chemical medium.89  Doesn’t sound like something that’s going to last through the ages, does it? The truth is, electronic records are much more convenient to use, but they also are more fragile than paper records. Like paper records, fire and water can destroy them, but so can magnetic impulses, power surges, heat and moisture. Unlike paper records, a little bit of damage goes a long way. A spilled cup of coffee may ruin a few papers on your desk, but spill the same cup onto your computer and the equivalent of volumes and volumes of information can be destroyed in a moment.

Another manner in which computer records are unlike paper records is the possibility of damaging the records through use. Continuous use over a long period of time may cause the deterioration of a bound volume, but that in no way compares to the amount of damage that can be done to a disk of computer records by a negligent or malicious user.

Computer Records Are Not “Human Readable” When you use computer records, you need a third party involved, namely, a computer. If something happens to your computer system, you can’t access the records until it is replaced. If the problem is a lightning strike that knocks out a few PCs in your office, it’s no big deal. They may be expensive to replace, but they are definitely replaceable. If the problem is a bug in a proprietary record-keeping software package and the company that wrote your software is out of business, you may have an insurmountable problem. No matter how well you preserve the computer media containing the data, you can’t read it without a program. 

[1] T.C.A. §§ 10-7-121 and 47-10-112.

[2] T.C.A. § 10-7-121.

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