As the years pass in any enduring community - like a co-op or condo building - there's a lot to remember sometimes it gets hard to keep track of all the decisions made, contracts signed, bills paid, and rules amended. How can board decisions be kept consistent as directors and presidents come and go, and the population within a building shifts and changes? How can a board commit to memory which contractors did fantastic work, and which ones left much to be desired? How to keep track of which shareholders are subletting, and to whom?
These are all questions of what's commonly referred to as "institutional memory." Your building's institutional memory is not so much a record of quirky characters who've lived in it over the years (though that can be part of it) as it is a record of both policy and year-to-year business, organized and archived to allow easy access and reference. By cataloging the vast paper trail left by your building over the years, your board and managing agent can streamline operations and create a valuable resource.
According to David Khazzam, vice president of PRC Management Corporation in Manhattan, "Most co-ops and condos have all their files stored at the managing agent's office. The agent usually stores the files in shareholder files, which relate to individual owners of each apartment. Then there are general files, which contain general contracts, building files, and so on. In effect, if you have a good managing agent, the records are already kept in reasonable form."
If your building is self-managed, however, and your filing system has been low on the priority list for a few years, you'll need a willing person to sift through the stacks and commit to archiving all the important stuff into a coherent system. This person should have an understanding of your building's hierarchy of documents, as well as access to all the necessary information and resources. In a smaller building with just a few units, one person may be enough to go through the stacks; in a larger building, you may need a crew of archivists on the job. If good records have been kept consistently throughout the years, the archiving process can be relatively simple. If papers and files have languished neglected in dusty file cabinets and scattered desk drawers, however, the task may be a good deal more tedious.
According to Wesley Haynes of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, "The first step in creating a central archive is to locate the relevant information. The first place to go, of course, is to your institution's own records. Offices and filing cabinets should be carefully examined for materials relating to previous maintenance activities and the upkeep of the building." The search may have to cast its nets wider, however; "Closets, attics, basements, and other parts of your building complex, which may have become repositories for older records over the years, should also be carefully checked," says Haynes. "Materials stored in this manner may be damp, mildewed, insect-infested, rotten, and generally in bad condition. They should be handled with care."