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Keeping public information public: Records scheduling, retention and destruction

This is the third post in a three-part series on how federal records laws ensure government information is appropriately managed, preserved and made available to the public.(see also part one and part two).

The front of the national archives building
The National Archives and Records Administration, which holds nearly 5 million cubic feet of archival records, helps federal agencies determine which records are deemed to be “of permanent value” and which can be disposed of, and when and how. Photo by Wknight94

Earlier posts in this series discussed the need for the federal government to have a system for determining how long to keep records and when to dispose of them. Just as a library deaccessions materials when they are no longer needed for that library’s purposes, the federal government also must dispose of records that it no longer needs. Without disposal, the haystack of records would grow ever larger, making it that much harder to find the needle.

Only 1-3% of records created by the federal government are deemed to be of permanent value. Agencies must transfer those records to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and dispose of the rest after an appropriate period of time. Currently, NARA holds nearly 5 million cubic feet of archival records – and that number continues to grow. You can see why there has to be a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

What are agency responsibilities to retain federal records?

The Federal Records Act (FRA) is the law that sets those standards. In turn, NARA provides guidance to federal agencies on their responsibilities under the FRA. The FRA requires agencies to safeguard federal records so that they are not lost or destroyed without authorization.

Agencies must maintain federal records as long as they have “sufficient administrative, legal, research, or other value to warrant their further preservation by the Government.” In order to do so, agencies must determine the “value” of a particular record.

How do agencies determine the expected value of a record?

Given the huge volume of records created by the federal government, it would be impractical to review every individual record in order to determine its value. Instead, agencies predict the value of records in advance through the use of categories. The agency categorizes the types of records it produces, and then, for each category, predicts how far in the future those records will be useful.

For instance, consider official agency documents explaining the rationale behind a new regulation. We can imagine that, thirty years later, people might want to know why the agency issued that regulation. But there would likely not be as much interest in the agency’s cafeteria menu after that length of time. This process is known as “records scheduling,” because the agency is creating a schedule for how long to retain each type of record.

However, the agency does not make scheduling decisions on its own. Agencies submit proposed schedules to NARA for its appraisal. If NARA agrees with the agency’s proposal, then it publishes a notice in the Federal Register describing the records and inviting comments from the public. After reviewing any comments, NARA may approve the schedule, and the agency may then begin disposing of records according to that schedule. Approved schedules are posted online to help the public identify how long particular records will be retained.

How can the records scheduling process be improved?

Typically, there is not much controversy about records schedules; rightly or wrongly, they’re generally seen as pretty mundane. But that’s not always the case.

For instance, in July, NARA published a notice of proposed records schedules from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for several categories of records related to detainees. After reviewing the proposed schedules, the ACLU and other organizations filed comments arguing that the proposed retention schedule “does not account for the needs of the public, impacted individuals and government officials to conduct necessary, and in some cases required, evaluation of ICE detention operations.” In response, NARA has not yet approved the ICE proposal, and changes are expected before it is approved.

ALA believes that the records scheduling process can be improved to better ensure that important records are retained for an adequate period of time. In November, ALA sent a letter recommending that NARA increase the transparency of proposed records schedules and review its appraisal policy to give greater consideration to the potential value of records. ALA will continue to work with NARA and agencies to advocate for the proper preservation of government information and its availability to the public.

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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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