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FAQs

The following questions have been compiled over time to answer the basic questions about records and records management.

Records include all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine-readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the United States Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government or because of the informational value of the data in them. Library and museum material made or acquired and preserved solely for reference or exhibition purposes, extra copies of documents preserved only for convenience of reference, and stocks of publications and of processed documents are not included. (44 U.S.C. 3301).

Records management is the planning, controlling, directing, organizing, training, promoting, and other managerial activities involved with respect to records creation, maintenance, use, and disposition to achieve adequate and proper documentation of the policies and transactions of the Federal Government and effective and economical management of agency operations. (44 U.S.C. 2901)
Records management addresses the life cycle of records (three stages):

  • Creation of the records necessary to document the activities,
  • Filing those records in a manner that allows for them to be safely stored and efficiently retrieved when necessary, and
  • Disposal of records in accordance with Agency and Federal regulations.

Tools for maintaining and using records include file plans, indexes, controlled vocabularies, taxonomies, data dictionaries, access and security procedures. The main tool used to manage the disposition of records is the records control schedule.

A series is the basic unit for organizing and controlling files. It is a group of files or documents kept together (either physically or intellectually) because they relate to a subject or function, result from the same activity, document a specific type of transaction, take a physical form, or have some other relationship arising out of their creation, receipt, maintenance, or use (36 CFR 1220.14).

Each record series must be scheduled for appropriate disposition. The series concept is a flexible one, and programs should create series by organizing documents in ways that facilitate management of the records throughout their life cycle. For example, each record series in hard copy should be physically separated from all other record series. Electronic records should be managed in ways that link records to their disposition authority, within the context of a recordkeeping system.

The retention period for records depends upon their legal, fiscal, administrative, and historical value. There is no single retention period for all records. Some may be destroyed after a short period, others must be retained for many years, and still others will be transferred to the National Archives because they possess enough historical value to warrant permanent retention. The determination of the appropriate retention period is the result of the appraisal process that takes place during the development and approval of the records schedule.

Recordkeeping requirements" are defined as all statements in statutes, regulations, and agency directives or authoritative issuances, that provide general and specific requirements for Federal agency personnel on records to be created and maintained by the agency (36 CFR 1220.14). Recordkeeping requirements should be outlined in procedural manuals and other issuances that specify which records need to be included in agency files or other recordkeeping systems.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Act of 1984 amended the records management statutes to divide records management oversight responsibilities between the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the General Services Administration (GSA). Under the Act, NARA is responsible for adequacy of documentation and records disposition (44 U.S.C. 2904(a)), and GSA is responsible for economy and efficiency in records management (44 U.S.C. 2904(b)). Federal agency records management programs must comply with regulations promulgated by both NARA (36 CFR 1220.2) and GSA.

Agency heads have specific legal requirements for records management which include:

  • Making and preserving records that contain adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and designed to furnish the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the agency's activities (44 U.S.C. 3101).
  • Establishing and maintaining an active, continuing program for the economical and efficient management of the records of the agency (44 U.S.C. 3102).
  • Establishing safeguards against the removal or loss of records and making requirements and penalties known to agency officials and employees (44 U.S.C. 3105)
  • Notifying the Archivist of any actual, impending, or threatened unlawful destruction of records and assisting in their recovery (44 U.S.C. 3106)

Federal employees are responsible for making and keeping records of their work and have three obligations regarding Federal records:

  1. Create records needed to do the business of their agency, record decisions and actions taken, and document activities for which they are responsible.
  2. Take care of records so that information can be found when needed. This means setting up good directories and files and filing materials (in whatever format) regularly and carefully in a manner that allows them to be safely stored and efficiently retrieved when necessary.
  3. Carry out the disposition of records under their control in accordance with agency records schedules and Federal regulations.

Records enable and support an agency's work to fulfill its mission by taking a systematic approach to the management of records.

  • Contributes to the smooth operation of your agency's programs by making the information needed for decision making and operations readily available
  • Helps deliver services in a consistent and equitable manner
  • Facilitates effective performance of activities throughout an agency
  • Protects the rights of the agency, its employees, and its customers
  • Provides continuity in the event of a disaster
  • Protects records from inappropriate and unauthorized access
  • Meets statutory and regulatory requirements including archival, audit, and oversight activities
  • Provides protection and support in litigation
  • Allows quicker retrieval of documents and information from files
  • Supports and documents historical and other research

Heads of Federal agencies must notify officials and employees that there are criminal penalties for the unlawful removal or destruction of Federal records (18 U.S.C. 2071 and 36 CFR 1228.102) and the unlawful disclosure of national security information (18 U.S.C. 793, 794, and 798). They must also provide guidance on the handling of records containing other information exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552) and the Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. 522a) or other information restricted by law.

Officials and employees must not remove Federal records from Government custody. Only the Archivist of the United States has the authority to approve the removal of Federal records from Government custody (44 U.S.C. Chapter 33). Under 36 CFR 1222.40 and 1222.42, agencies must develop procedures to ensure that departing officials and employees do not remove Federal records.

As defined in 44 U.S.C. 3301, Federal records are documentary materials that agencies create and receive while conducting business that provide evidence of the agency’s organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and operations, or because they contain information of value. Records may be in paper, film, tape, disk, or other physical form. They may be generated manually, electronically, or by other means.

Materials such as extra copies of records kept solely for convenience of reference, library or museum materials, and stocks of publications and processed documents are excluded from the definition of "record" (44 U.S.C. Chapter 33). These work-related materials, though excluded from the definition of "record," nevertheless belong to and are controlled by the Government (36 CFR 1222.34(f)) and must not be removed unless approved as cited in par. 3.

Federal records must be maintained in agency files or electronic recordkeeping systems. Officials and employees must know how to ensure that records are incorporated into files or electronic recordkeeping systems, especially records that were generated electronically on personal computers. Only records needed for current operations, such as open case files may be maintained at the official’s or employee’s desk. Depending on agency policies, agencies may permit officials and employees to keep extra copies for convenience of reference in their offices or workstations. However, officials and employees must obtain the agency’s permission if they want to remove any of these materials from the agency (36 CFR 1222.42).

Records are maintained in agency files and other recordkeeping systems. When a record is finalized, when a case file is closed, or at another appropriate time, the official or employee must follow established procedures for incorporating it into the appropriate recordkeeping system. Records must be maintained in recordkeeping systems so that they will be integrated, either physically or intellectually, with related records and where they will be accessible to all staff who may need them. Records must remain in the custody of the agency and may be removed only in accordance with the agency’s guidelines.

If an agency knows of any actual or potential threat to records (e.g., removal, alteration, or destruction), it must contact the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), as required by 36 CFR 1228.104. NARA will assist the agency in contacting the Attorney General for the recovery of any unlawfully removed records. It is also important to follow all agency internal reporting requirements, which may include reporting the threat to the agency’s legal counsel and to its Inspector General.

Your agency’s records officer has more information about the maintenance and disposition of records and extra copies of records. Your agency’s records officer, legal counsel, or information security officer has more information about your agency’s policies on the removal of extra copies of records and how to secure approval. The list of agency records officers is available online.

NARA’s Lifecycle Management Division aids and advice to agency records officers in the Washington, DC, area. Your agency’s records officer may contact the NARA appraiser or records analyst with whom your agency normally works. A list of the appraisal and scheduling work groups is posted on the NARA website. The Records Management staff in NARA’s regional offices aids records officers across the country. A complete list of NARA regional facilities is also available.

Officials who wish to donate collections of personal papers and extra copies of records to a Presidential library may contact the National Archives and Records Administration, Office of Presidential Libraries (NL), Room 2200, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001, or by telephone at 301-837-3250.

Page last updated on October 7, 2019