Records Managers

FAQs in Response to the What's & Why's of Electronic Formats NARA Accepts

What formats of electronic records does NARA accept?

According to its regulations (36 CFR 1228.270(d)) and transfer guidance developed during the Electronic Records Management [ERM] E-Government Initiative, NARA accepts over twenty formats (or versions thereof) of electronic records, ranging from digital photography to web pages to geographic information systems. In addition to the formats cited in the regulations, additional formats that NARA accepts can be found at http://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/initiatives/erm-products.html.

NARA is currently developing an Electronic Records Archives [ERA] system that will allow it to accept even more formats of electronic records in the future.

Why doesn't NARA accept any electronic format?

While it might seem feasible to the casual observer, the operational implications of NARA accepting any format of electronic record are mind boggling. NARA needs to fulfill our statutory mandate to preserve permanent records and make them available without becoming a museum of all the computing platforms and applications required to read thousands of formats in terabytes of Federal records. The museum approach would be unsustainable.

The format and volume problem is exacerbated when one considers both the often lengthy delay that transpires before NARA receives permanent records from Federal agencies as well as restrictions that may further limit access to said electronic material (per 44 USC 2108 (a)) even after the Archives has assumed legal custody. During these time periods, many more generations of hardware and software will ensue.

We are currently examining the archival sustainability of popular formats, but given these circumstances, the most practical solution is for NARA to limit the number of electronic record formats it accepts and provide guidance to agencies on how to make sustainable format choices for the electronic records they create (see http://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/initiatives/sustainable-faq.html).

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Would NARA allow permanently valuable electronic records to be lost if they aren't in one of the formats NARA currently accepts?

NARA would never allow permanent electronic records to be lost because of format limitations. In specific cases where records cannot be transformed by the creating agencies into sustainable formats or meet NARA's format-specific transfer guidances (such as at the end of a presidential administration, sunsetting of Commissions or the closing of a Federal agency), NARA will accept electronic records which have been appraised as permanent regardless of their format. In such cases however, NARA's ability to provide enhance preservation or access to such records is limited.

What are NARA's responsibilities under the Federal Records Act?

  1. NARA provides agencies with legal authority to dispose of records when they are no longer needed for agencies' business. 'Dispose' means either destroy, or for a small percentage of materials (~3%), retain "for the life of the republic."
  2. NARA provides agencies with policy and guidance on records management requirements so records will endure beyond the short lifespan of specific hardware and software used to create the records.
  3. NARA also analyzes and reports on Federal agencies' records management practices to support further guidance development and to call attention to the challenges new technologies have on ensuring a historical record for future generations.

What are Federal Agencies' responsibilities under the Federal Records Act?

According to archiving procedures and Federal law, agencies generally store and preserve their historically valuable records for an often lengthy period of time in support of their internal business before transferring them to the National Archives. Often these records also have a variety of access restrictions that are best managed by the creating agency. During this period, agencies are responsible for their maintenance, preservation and access - not the National Archives.

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