Archivist’s Column: Insight into NARA’s Records Scheduling Process

April 15, 2019

By David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

In fall 2018, staff at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) fielded a number of inquiries from parties concerned that valuable records were at risk of destruction. The concerns stemmed from a routine notice in the Federal Register about the Department of the Interior’s proposed records schedule. The proposed schedule was the result of a normal revision of old, complex retention schedules and did not result in imminent destruction or loss of access to historically valuable records.

Given the misunderstanding, it is worthwhile to describe records schedules and the process NARA and Federal agencies go through under the Federal Records Act to manage records for the agencies’ business needs and the public’s long-term needs.

As head of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), one of my most important responsibilities is overseeing records management across the Federal Government. Two laws govern records created by the U.S. Government: the Federal Records Act (FRA) and the Presidential Records Act (PRA). The FRA gives NARA oversight authority over Federal agencies; the PRA directs NARA to provide advice and assistance to the White House on records management practices.

Our records management responsibility under the FRA is most visible through NARA’s process of approving requests for records disposition, or records schedules, from Federal agencies. As in all other areas of our work, my staff and I are committed to carrying out this responsibility as transparently as possible. We also work to ensure the records are accessible throughout their life cycle.

Accessibility means that people can find what they need. Both saving too little and saving too much hinder researchers’ ability to find the records they are looking for. Effective records management is critical to ensure that our nation’s historical records are preserved and accessible.

A records schedule identifies records as either temporary or permanent. As standard practice and to adhere to statutory and regulatory requirements, all Federal agencies are required to manage their records under approved records disposition schedules, using either the General Records Schedule (GRS) or agency-specific records schedules I review and approve.

Agencies work with the NARA to create records schedules. During our review of the proposed schedules, NARA staff determine if records have sufficient historical or other research value to warrant preservation in the National Archives (permanent retention). Records that do not meet the appraisal policy’s standard for long-term value are scheduled for disposal after an appropriate period of time (temporary retention).

We also review the retention periods proposed for temporary records to make sure they are retained long enough to protect the interests and legal rights of the Government, the American public, and other private parties. Agencies are not permitted to destroy Federal records without an approved records schedule. Even with an approved records schedule in place, agency actions are limited. Permanent records must be preserved until they are ready for transfer to NARA, and temporary records cannot be disposed of before they reach the end of the NARA-approved retention period. Records needed for litigation, or in response to pending Freedom of Information Act requests, cannot be destroyed regardless of the approved retention period.

We are required to publish a notice in the Federal Register about any proposed disposal of temporary Federal records and offer an opportunity for public comment. The opportunity for public input is integral to the scheduling and appraisal process. Recently, we received thousands of comments from the public on proposed records schedules from the Department of the Interior and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. In some cases, we have used these comments to work with the agencies to extend the proposed retention period or even to identify a records series as permanent. It is our practice to provide a response to all comments received during the Federal Register process.

The Office of the Chief Records Officer is constantly working to make this process even easier for the public and interested stakeholders. We are currently modernizing these processes by developing more interactive and intuitive systems for posting all proposed schedules and their related appraisal memoranda on the web for public review and comment. These new systems will simplify the current process in which interested individuals must formally request schedules after reviewing the notice published in the Federal Register. Our hope is that this will increase transparency and promote greater engagement by the public and interested stakeholders in this important process.

More information about the Department of the Interior records schedule can be found by visiting the blog of the Office of the Chief Records Officer, Records Express. We have several posts up about the specific issues raised by this proposed schedule and the public comment period.