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Keeping public information public: an introduction to federal records laws

This is the first post in a three-part series. Part two describes how federal records laws apply to information on government websites. 

The front of the national archives building in Washington, DC
The National Archives and Records Administration preserves and documents government and historical records. Photo by Wknight94

The federal government generates an almost unimaginable quantity of information, such as medical research, veterans’ service records, regulations and policy documents, and safety inspection records, to name just a few examples.

For decades, ALA has advocated for policies that ensure government information is appropriately managed, preserved and made available to the public, including through libraries. Federal records laws play important roles in those processes. This series will introduce those laws and highlight two current issues that impact public access to government information: the management of information on federal websites and the preservation and destruction of government information.

What are the fundamental concepts of federal records laws?

Today’s legal framework for managing government information dates back to the 1934 National Archives Act and the 1950 Federal Records Act (FRA). Under the supervision of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), federal agencies must:

  1. Create adequate records to document their activities;
  2. Keep the records for a sufficient length of time, based on their value; and
  3. Once the government no longer has an immediate use for the records, transfer those records with permanent value to the National Archives and dispose of the rest.

To highlight some of the significant implications of that framework:

  • Federal agencies do not have the discretion to do whatever they want with their records; they have responsibilities under federal law.
  • The National Archives isn’t just a building with a bunch of neat old documents: it actively oversees the ongoing archival activities of federal agencies. In particular, agencies generally may not destroy records without NARA’s approval.
  • To avoid drowning in a sea of information, the government needs to determine the expected value of a record – in other words, to predict whether a record will be needed next year, next decade, or next century, and then dispose of it after that time.

How do records laws affect public access to government information?

Members of the public use federal records both directly and indirectly:

Directly: The public may access records directly through a federal website, in an agency reading room, or by making a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or a similar process. If your library has ever helped a user find information from a federal website, you’ve probably worked with a federal record.

Indirectly: Researchers and editors, both inside and outside of government, may utilize records in creating new information products for a larger audience. For instance, inside government, the Executive Office for Immigration Review publishes a bound volume of selected administrative decisions by compiling individual records into a product of interest to a wider audience. Outside of government, journalists often make FOIA requests for records, then incorporate information gleaned from those records into news stories that can better inform the public about government decision-making. Libraries might then collect the resulting publications that incorporated the information from federal records.

However, these activities can only take place if federal agencies properly create, manage and preserve their records. In an upcoming post, learn more about how agencies manage records on federal websites.

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Gavin Baker

Gavin Baker is an assistant director of Government Relations. He advocates for library priorities on government information and transparency issues. Previously, he worked at California Common Cause, the Center for Effective Government / OMB Watch and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. Gavin earned his M.S. in library and information studies from Florida State University and his B.A. in political science from the University of Florida.

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