Records Managers

Inquiry into the Disposal of Records
of the Naval Research Laboratory Stored at the
Washington National Records Center

National Archives and Records Administration
April 24, 1998


Naval Research Laboratory Records:
Statement by John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States,
Press Release, April 24, 1998.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Executive Summary
I. Introduction
II. Recommendations
III. Description of the Former Navy Schedule
IV. Description of the Revised Navy Schedule
V. Appraisal Issues
VI. National Archives Processing
VII. Schedule Implementation
VIII. Disposal of Records
IX. Records Still Remaining After Destruction of NRL Records
X. Summary of Facts/Conclusions


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

On November 13, 1997, Admiral Paul G. Gaffney, II, the Chief of Naval Research, wrote to the Archivist of the United States stating that the "historical record of our nation's scientific and technological heritage has suffered a serious and irreparable loss." Admiral Gaffney's letter detailed how the Washington National Records Center had destroyed Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) correspondence and laboratory notebooks dating from the 1940s. About the same time, several newspapers published stories on the destruction of the records, and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) received inquiries from professional organizations and others concerning the destruction.

On November 21, 1997, John Carlin, Archivist of the United States, issued a statement promising a full inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the destruction. The inquiry focused on NARA's role in the matter and looked at five basic issues:

Records are approved for archival retention or destruction through a process known as "scheduling" in which an agency proposes how long each type of record (e.g. laboratory notebooks) should be retained. NARA reviews the proposed dispositions, approves or modifies the retentions, and selects the records that will come to the National Archives through a process known as appraisal. Did that process work correctly?

Once the scheduling and appraisal process was completed, the approved schedule was implemented and as part of that implementation, the records in question were assigned dispositions that authorized their destruction or transfer to the National Archives. Was that process carried out according to established procedures?

Following the implementation, was the Department of the Navy properly notified that the records were going to be destroyed and given an appropriate amount of time to object to the destruction?

Even if the processes worked correctly, were valuable records destroyed?

Are changes to the processes advisable?

In summary, the NARA inquiry concluded the following:

The appraisal of the records was carried out according to established procedures. The schedule and the appraisal were extensively coordinated with both the Department of the Navy's records management staff and NRL staff. Navy, NRL and NARA all agreed with the dispositions that made the correspondence disposable and only selected laboratory notebooks permanent. The inquiry did find that the Federal Register notice inviting public comment on the schedule did not adequately describe the records.

The process for implementing the records schedule was carried out according to established procedures. No question was raised concerning the temporary nature of the laboratory correspondence. However, NRL staff and NARA staff had differing interpretations of how the schedule item concerning selection of laboratory notebooks would be implemented. NARA staff interpreted the schedule to mean that only those notebooks that met all the criteria would be permanent. NRL staff expected that notebooks that met any of the criteria would be permanent. These differing views of the schedule (and their subsequent implementation) more than any other cause are the major contributor to the controversy which has arisen concerning the lab notebooks. Navy and NRL staff had ample opportunity to review NARA finding aids that clearly showed that the correspondence and notebooks were scheduled for destruction. However, there were no procedures in place to notify Navy or NRL of the specific recodings when they were made.

The records in question were destroyed in three destruction cycles between October 1996 and April 1997. Before each destruction cycle, the Department of the Navy records management staff were notified that these and other records were about to be destroyed and were given 90 days to request a delay. In two of those three cases, Navy requested a delay on other records scheduled for destruction but not on the NRL records. Whether Navy properly coordinated the approval of the destruction notices is beyond the scope of this report.

Despite the intensive coordination and review, records of archival value were destroyed. Although not all of the laboratory notebooks would have merited preservation by NARA, some clearly would have. More importantly, the correspondence from that time period contained documentation that NARA appraisal staff had expected would be preserved in other files. In fact, the correspondence files were the only known source for this documentation.

Based on these findings, the report makes eleven recommendations about how processes might be improved. The recommendations (see Section II of the report, pages 5-7) can be grouped under five headings:

  1. The strategy for identifying permanent records for Navy laboratories should be reexamined as part of NARA's overall review and development of appraisal criteria for scientific records.

  2. NARA should coordinate more closely with agencies on schedule implementation.

  3. Federal Register notices should adequately describe the records schedules.

  4. NARA should send its disposal notices via certified mail to verify receipt.

  5. The Department of the Navy should review its procedures for coordination of records schedules and disposal notices to ensure that its records management staff receives proper input.
Top of Page

I. INTRODUCTION

This study was undertaken at the request of the Archivist of the United States as an examination of the circumstances surrounding the destruction of certain Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) correspondence and laboratory notebooks scheduled within the currently approved Navy and Marine Corps Records Disposition Manual, initially processed as National Archives Job N1-NU-89-5 and subsequently issued by Navy as SECNAVINST 5212.5C. The two designations are interchangeable and will be used where chronologically appropriate; N1-NU-89-5 while in process by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and SECNAVINST 5212.5C after its issuance by Navy records management.

Approximately 600 cubic feet of laboratory correspondence dating from 1918-1986 and 250 cubic feet of laboratory notebooks dating from 1942-1969 were destroyed in the destruction cycles of October 1996, January 1997, and April 1997. We believe that valuable records of the Naval Research Laboratory were destroyed, particularly the laboratory correspondence series. The records were at the time of their destruction physically stored at the Washington National Records Center (WNRC). WNRC stores approximately 3,590,000 cubic feet of records of Federal agencies, 256,000 cubic feet of Navy records, and annually destroys an average of 144,700 cubic feet of records eligible for destruction.

This report has two major goals. The first is to examine the circumstances of this destruction: to examine the process of what happened, and why it happened. The second is to make recommendations for process improvements if such improvements are indicated.

The report begins with a list of recommendations based on the inquiry. Subsequent report sections contain the information contributing to the summary/recommendations.

Top of Page

II. RECOMMENDATIONS

There are well established procedures for the appraisal, scheduling, and schedule implementation of Federal records in general and for Navy records in particular in this instance, and those procedures were followed. This particular situation, if not unique, is very unusual given the volume of records which WNRC manages. Unfortunately the situation which occurred here may occur again if present procedures are not strengthened. This strengthening is most particularly needed in terms of increased NARA-agency-public user communication in those instances where permanent records (or records perceived as permanent) are formally reappraised and determined to be temporary either in total or in part. The following recommendations are therefore being made to strengthen a system which already contains many safeguards. It is very important to note, however, that all changes will involve more work by both NARA and the agency. Both agencies need to assess very carefully the time, risk, personnel, and cost factors involved in implementing such changes. That assessment is not part of this report and should be addressed separately.

The eleven recommendations in this report fall into five general categories.

I. The strategy for identifying permanent records for Navy laboratories should be reexamined as part of NARA's overall review and development of appraisal criteria for scientific records.

Recommendation 1

Present and future disposition implementation of the Project Case Files (3900/5) and the Program Managers Case Files (3900/6) should be closely reviewed and coordinated with Navy to ensure identification and preservation of permanent records. This review should include a reevaluation of the surviving Laboratory Correspondence (3900/1B) to test the hypothesis that important current laboratory correspondence documentation is indeed captured at the level of the Project Case Files.

Recommendation 2

The selection criteria for the Laboratory Notebooks (3900/9A) need to be reviewed and revised. There are better model selection criteria in use in other Federal agencies. As now written the present criteria save only records with specific physical characteristics, not necessarily pertinent historic records or other records of high informational value. As now written they cannot be implemented given the differing views of each agency on what the criteria were expected to accomplish (NARA to make most lab notebooks temporary in accordance with how they are generally scheduled throughout the Federal Government; NRL to make them essentially permanent as a record of its activity).

II. NARA should coordinate more closely with agencies on schedule implementation.

Recommendation 3

When selection or sampling criteria are developed to save a portion of records in a series formerly seen or appraised as permanent, NARA and agency personnel working on the schedule should take care to coordinate very closely on the disposition of such series. Agreement should be reached not only on the wording of the selection criteria, but on how each agency believes the criteria are to be applied or the selection made. This should be documented in the official job dossier.

Recommendation 4

In the scheduling process NARA and agency personnel should ensure that current dispositions can be applied accurately to older records. If necessary, a schedule item should contain date ranges clearly identifying the time frame for which a particular disposition statement is valid.

Recommendation 5

Upon recoding of any formerly permanent or unscheduled items to temporary, WNRC staff should specifically notify agency records officers of its completion, and provide information on the recoding of each individual accession. The agency will respond in writing as to whether the recodings appropriately address their concerns. No action will be taken to implement the recodings until a written response from the agency is received from the agency records office. It remains the agency records officer's responsibility to ensure that such information is provided to the appropriate office within the agency, and that a single agency response is transmitted to NARA. Any differences could then be resolved between the two agencies.

Recommendation 6

NARA should make agencies more aware of the tools available to them to check the proper status of their records. The required yearly review of agency records schedules can identify records needing scheduling, misscheduled items, or records eligible for transfer to the National Archives. WNRC-issued reports such as the O-1 report can also identify records about which there may be a question.

Recommendation 7

There may be, on occasion, situations in which NARA views as temporary records which an agency believes to be permanent. NARA's policy in such situations should be to permit the agency to donate those records to a third party under the provisions of 36 CFR 1228.60.

III. Federal Register notices should adequately describe the records schedules.

Recommendation 8

The vehicle for public comment on records schedules is and should continue to remain publication in the Federal Register. But availability of schedule notices should be worded to avoid the phrase "routine and facilitative records" unless such is actually the case. Chapter 3 was so described, but in reality contains much which is not routine; in fact it contains some of the most important Navy records scheduled for permanent retention.

IV. NARA should send disposal notices via certified mail to verify receipt.

Recommendation 9

Notices of destruction sent by WNRC at the beginning of a destruction cycle should be sent by certified mail to the agency records officer. The agency records officer is and should continue to be the official records management contact between NARA and the agency. It also remains the records officer's responsibility further to distribute the notices to the affected program offices and to receive back input for transmittal to NARA. Navy records management needs to review its internal coordination procedures to ensure that this is done.

V. The Department of the Navy should review its procedures for coordination of records schedules and disposal notices to ensure that it receives proper input.

Recommendation 10

The present procedure of assuming concurrence for the destruction of records unless otherwise notified by the agency in writing should remain in effect. It is counterproductive to efficiency and good records management practice to require a positive agency response in writing in all cases. If in fact agency personnel believe that the records should not be destroyed, 90 days is sufficient time to make that concern known through the agency records office to NARA.

Recommendation 11

Present procedures provide for reappraisal of any records series via submission of a Standard Form 115. If agency program personnel believe that currently approved records schedules are not satisfactory, they should submit an updated proposed disposition through the agency records officer for transmission to the National Archives.

Top of Page

III. DESCRIPTION OF THE FORMER NAVY SCHEDULE (SECNAVINST 5215.5B)

SECNAVINST 5212.5C, the present applicable Navy schedule, is a comprehensive schedule for records created by Naval and Marine Corps units both ashore and afloat. It is organized into "Chapters" containing the Navy filing system of Standard Subject Identification Codes (SSICs). Chapter 3 covers Operations and Readiness Records, SSICs 3000-3999. Within this grouping is SSIC 3900, General Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) Records, which contains the codes of the records at issue.

Prior to the issuance of SECNAVINST 5212.5C, disposition of Navy records was governed by the provisions of an earlier schedule, SECNAVINST 5212.5B, Part II, Chapter 3 of June 21, 1961, with Change 1 dated August 27, 1964. Under the instructions in Chapter 3, Standard Subject Identification Code (SSIC) 3900, Research and Development Records-General (Item 1) identified among others the following types of records and provided for the stated dispositions:

(1)(b) General correspondence files, schedules, reports, and other papers of other research and development activities, departments or other organizational units that reflect overall operations and administration of the research and development function. These primarily are accumulated by field laboratories or other research activities and offices responsible for the performance, development, review, and appraisal or analysis of research and development projects (such as Naval Research Laboratory...).

Retention Period: permanent. (Transfer to inactive file when 5 years old and to nearest Federal Records Center 5 years later or when no longer needed for local reference).

(1)(7) Laboratory data or technical notebooks and other records containing basic technical, research, and scientific data of continuing value and reflecting progress and how results were achieved.

Retention period: permanent. Transfer to inactive file upon completion of related projects or when Notebooks are filled; transfer inactive file to nearest Federal Records Center when 5 years old or when no longer needed by the individual (engineer, scientist, or technician).

The dispositions and text cited for Part II, Chapter III in SECNAVINST 5212.5B indicate that these instructions constituted a records retention plan rather than a records control schedule as currently understood. For temporary records, retention periods for each series were given with no provision for destruction, though destruction was implied (The disposition for Technical Working Data, for instance provided for a retention of "5 years or until superseded or obsolete"). "Permanent" records were identified but there were no provisions for transfer to the National Archives. The word "permanent" therefore may once have had a dual contextual meaning under the circumstances: permanent in the sense of documenting the activities of the agency; and permanent in the sense that they were not to be physically destroyed.

The structure and wording of this document is entirely consistent with the development of records retention schedules in 1961. Many schedules other than Navy's were developed and worded in the same manner. By the 1980s, however, the thinking on records control schedule development had changed. The language of 36 CFR Ch. XII 1220.14 codified this change. It now described "unscheduled" records as "those described but not authorized for disposal on an SF 115 approved prior to May 14, 1973." Since the lab correspondence and notebooks described in SECNAVINST 5212.5B in 1961 had not been authorized for disposal (being instead described as "permanent"), their disposition was automatically changed to "unscheduled." Unscheduled records had to be formally appraised, and were ineligible to be retired for storage to a Federal Records Center unless an exception was granted. Such an exception was extended to Navy pending the approval of a new schedule, and Navy continued to retire its records to the FRCs.

One of the objectives of the new emphasis on scheduling was to produce a more structured document containing more precise language in terms of ultimate disposition. New series descriptions now had to provide for the destruction of temporary records, the reappraisal of records formerly simply designated as "permanent," and specific transfer dates to the National Archives for those reappraised records retaining the "permanent" disposition using current appraisal criteria.

Navy submitted revised versions of Chapter 3 in 1981 and 1985 which according to the NARA appraiser Mr. Richard MacKay "we rejected as incomplete, inadequate, and unsupported with what we [NARA] consider adequate series descriptions." The result of these failed attempts at new schedule development was a period of interaction between NARA appraisers and Navy records management personnel resulting in another updated version of Chapter 3. Before this updated chapter could be issued as a formal SECNAV Instruction, the Navy formally submitted it to the National Archives for review and approval as required by law. The National Archives registered the submission as Job N1-NU-89-5 on August 30, 1989.

Top of Page

IV. DESCRIPTION OF THE REVISED NAVY SCHEDULE (SECNAVINST 5212.5C)

This schedule, N1-NU-89-5, approved by the Acting Archivist of the United States on March 20, 1995, is a revision and a comprehensive description of the records contained in Chapter 3 of the Navy and Marine Corps Records Disposition Manual. It was part of a comprehensive effort to update the 1961 document by submitting entirely new schedule chapters to replace the previous ones. It updates and replaces the dispositions referred to in SECNAVINST 5212.5B described above. The schedule language considerably tightens the disposition statements. For each series described, there are disposition statements and instructions which provide for their ultimate transfer to the National Archives of the United States (permanent series) or their destruction (temporary series), both as required under the provisions of 36 CFR Chapter XII, Part 1228 (Disposition of Federal Records).

Chapter 3 is meant to have national applicability for records relating to all phases of naval operations--sea, land, and air. These include those pertaining to preparation, training and readiness, conduct of warfare and readiness operations, operations analyses, port operations, weather services, flight and space operations, naval intelligence, and research and development. The records are accumulated by activities ashore and afloat applying procedures and policies established by higher organizational elements, by command activities exercising management and operational control, and by departmental (headquarters) offices responsible for managing, planning, developing, and prescribing operational policies and procedures for joint operations, mobilization, and fleet operations.

The series discussed in this report are coded in the Navy schedule as SSIC 3900 (General RDT&E Records) and are described in that schedule as follows, together with the approved disposition for each part.

SSIC 3900

1. PRIMARY PROGRAM RECORDS

a. Files and other records of the Secretary of the Navy, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps, Office of Naval Research (ONR), and Systems Command Headquarters. Correspondence, memoranda, reports, studies, record copies of instructions and notices, and other records that document the establishment, development, and accomplishment of the Navy's overall Research and Development Program. Exclude reports and project case files for specific R&D projects that are maintained by Program and Project Managers.

Disposition: PERMANENT. Retire to WNRC when four years old. Transfer to NARA when 20 years old.

b. Files and other records of major laboratories and other activities whose primary function is research and development or testing. Correspondence, reports, studies, and similar records that document the overall project operations and administration of the RDT&E function at major laboratories and other RDT&E field facilities responsible for the performance, development, review, appraisal, or analysis of research and development projects. Exclude Annual Command History prepared in accordance with OPNAV Instruction 5750.12 series and Marine Corps Historical Summaries files under SSIC 5757 of this instruction.

Disposition: Retire to nearest FRC when 5 years old. Destroy when 10 years old.

9. LABORATORY NOTEBOOKS. Notebooks used to record and preserve engineering, scientific, and technical data for R&D projects reflecting progress and how results were achieved.

a. Formal Laboratory Notebooks. Numbered bound volumes issued by the Laboratory and containing serial numbered pages. Maintained by an individual assigned to the project under recognized scientific conventions, all entries are dated, signed by the person maintaining the notebook, and witnessed by a colleague familiar with the experiment or the scientific principle involved.

Disposition: PERMANENT. Retire to nearest FRC when 6 years old. Transfer to NARA when 30 years old.

b. Informal Laboratory Notebooks that do not meet the criteria established for Formal Laboratory Notebooks.

(1) Informal Laboratory Notebooks containing data essential for establishing patent rights.

Disposition: Retire to nearest FRC when 6 years old. Destroy when 25 years old.

(2) Informal Laboratory Notebooks containing technical data which is routine, fragmentary, or essentially duplicated in technical reports or papers.

Disposition: Retire to nearest FRC when 5 years old. Destroy when 10 years old.

Top of Page

V. APPRAISAL ISSUES PERTAINING TO SECNAVINST 5212.5C

Mr. Richard MacKay of NARA's records appraisal staff was the NARA appraiser of the revised schedule. Mr. MacKay is a senior appraiser on the staff, has worked with Navy records for over a decade, and is himself a retired Naval officer. He notes in his appraisal memo that "The formulation of this schedule and the appraisal thereof is based on an extensive consultation with the ONR [Office of Naval Research] Records Manager, the Archivist and Historian at the Naval Research Lab (NRL), the staff historian for the Director of Naval Laboratories, OP-091 (now CNO NO91), SPAWARS, NAVSEA, and the Departmental Records Officers." Subsequent conversation with Naval Research Laboratory personnel, particularly Mr. Dean Bundy, archivist at the NRL, confirms that NARA and NRL personnel did indeed collaborate closely in the development of the particular schedule items in question, most specifically the laboratory notebooks.

From 1989 through 1993 the appraiser also visited the following sites in reviewing Navy R&D records:

David W. Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center, Bethesda, MD

Naval Weapons Center, China Lake, CA

Naval Oceans Systems Center, San Diego, CA

Naval Engineering Civil Engineering Lab, Port Hueneme, CA

Naval Air Development Center, Warminister, PA

Naval Ocean Research and Development Activity, Bay St. Louis, MS

Pacific Missile Test Center, Point Mugu, CA

Naval Environmental Prediction Research Facility, Monterey, CA

Naval Surface Weapons Center, Dahlgren, VA

Naval Personnel Research and Development Center, San Diego, CA

Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force, Norfolk, VA.

At each site the appraiser consulted with the Director of Research (the senior civilian scientist), the records manager, the technical librarian, the technical documents section, and the command historian (if one was assigned). All these units provided their technical expertise in appraising the value of the records they created, as well as their context within the overall Navy research and development program. Throughout the entire process, NARA received no notification that anyone in these labs had any question about the proposed schedule. Work on the appraisal of the lab correspondence and the lab notebooks is discussed immediately below with reference to the NRL.

Description of the laboratory correspondence series under SECNAVINST 5212.5C differed from that of its predecessor schedule. SECNAVINST 5212.5B identified three basic correspondence series, all "permanent":

1. General Correspondence Files (for CNO, Office of Naval Research, Commandant USMC etc.)

2. General Correspondence of other Research and Development activities.

3. Project Files.

SECNAVINST 5212.5C retained the first two items but combined them under one revised schedule item, 3900/1.

1. General Correspondence of the CNO et al. remained permanent as 3900/1A.

2. General Correspondence of other Research and Development Activities, now redefined as Files and Other Records of Major Laboratories, became temporary as 3900/1B. This included the laboratory correspondence created by NRL.

3. Project Files (3900/5 in the revised schedule) remained a permanent item as 3900/5. It was in this latter records series that the appraiser believed vital permanent documentation was to be located since "the file is a complete history of each project from initiation through research, development, design, and testing, to completion."

4. A newly created schedule item, Program Manager's Case Files, was a temporary record as 3900/6. The appraiser believed that records in this category were found in the old Project files, thus making it necessary to separate the two. These last two items comprised over 10,000 cubic feet of records at WNRC and although different dispositions were recommended, the appraiser did not indicate in his memorandum how the two were to be identified and separated, though he believed they would be "fairly easy to identify and segregate." The identification of 3900/5 and 3900/6 records are not at issue here, but may represent a fruitful area for future NARA/Navy schedule implementation activities.

The appraiser concentrated mainly upon the Primary Program records created at the level of the Office of Naval Research, the Director of Test, Evaluation, and Technology (CNO N091), ASN RD&A, and Headquarters US Marine Corps. Defining these as SSIC 3900.1 (in reality 3900.1A, the permanent series), and excluding Marine Corps records as a special case not applicable to this study, he noted that total volume of permanent records would amount to only approximately 500 cubic feet of the over 4000 cubic feet retired to WNRC. This remainder he attributed to records of Program Managers (a temporary record), which he believed to have been incorrectly retired under the old schedule but which could be easily separated out. The appraiser felt that, for the reasons already cited, program activities could best be documented in Item 3900/5, the Project Case Files, and that therefore the files and other records of major laboratories were disposable.

In describing the laboratory notebooks, the appraiser stated in his memorandum that it was necessary to "tamper slightly" with the "conventional wisdom" that they are generally worthless high volume series of meaningless notes, formulas, and numbers which do not merit archival preservation. Recognizing that valuable documentation would be lost if the series were made totally disposable, the disposition instructions, developed jointly by Mr. Bundy, the NRL archivist, and Mr. MacKay, the NARA appraiser, provided for the retention of notebooks meeting the designated criteria previously described.

According to the NRL archivist "our [NRL's] thinking was that the notebooks were centrally important to NRL, both as legal documents, and as repositories for much of its corporate memory." Also "it was recognized at NRL that issuance of bound and controlled notebooks conformed to recognized scientific conventions for the recording of primary R&D data that have been accepted for 300 years," and "we looked at the criteria in 3900/9(a) as indicators that the notebooks met the established scientific conventions." While recognizing that the level of compliance of scientists in invariably meeting all of the established criteria varied widely, the NRL position on the matter seems to have been (again in the words of their archivist) "since all the notebooks were bound and numbered, that alone would infer that enough of the remaining criteria were met to verify the historical importance of the whole series."

Mr. MacKay viewed these criteria quite differently and would not have accepted the NRL's interpretation. The final language of the schedule indicates that while he believed that permanent laboratory notebooks did exist (which was the reason for identifying separate schedule items of permanent and temporary notebooks), they could be identified only by the presence of all of the criteria enumerated in the appraisal memo. Those notebooks not meeting them would be temporary, falling under schedule item 3900/9B. Mr. MacKay's position, as well as that of NARA, was that with few exceptions, most lab notebooks were temporary.

Mr. MacKay's views on both the temporary nature of most lab notebooks and on the use of selection criteria for determining permanent lab notebooks are consistent with how NARA schedules such records across the Federal Government. Some large agencies have scheduled their notebooks as a completely temporary series. Other agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have specific and narrow criteria for selecting permanent documentation in an otherwise temporary notebook series. These criteria differ significantly from those developed in the Navy schedule. They do not identify physical aspects of the notebooks, but rather important information they may contain. The NIST standards, for example, call for permanent retention of notebooks which fall into the following categories: received national or international awards of distinction (i.e. the Nobel Prize); were the work of prominent NIST investigators of widely recognized professional stature or have received national or international recognition; were the result of widespread media attention; resulted in significant social, political, or scientific controversy; or established a precedent for significantly changing NIST research or administrative policies. These selection criteria are more congruent with the recommendations made in Appraising the Records of Modern Science and Technology: A Guide which notes that "When appraising research notes, archivists should be concerned with informational content rather than form" (p.67).

Unfortunately the final selection criteria as developed by NARA and NRL for the Navy records schedule were viewed differently by both agencies. NARA saw them as a unit, a means by which large volumes of temporary records could be separated from small quantities of permanent ones, as had been done consistently in many other similar schedules. Under this assumption all criteria had to be met in order for notebooks to be scheduled as permanent. NRL on the other hand saw the criteria as individual pointers, any one or combination of which would indicate permanent notebooks. These differing views of the schedule criteria (and their subsequent implementation), more than any other cause are the major contributor to the controversy which has arisen concerning the lab notebooks.

Despite these fundamentally different interpretations of what the schedule language meant, the appraisal recommendations for the proposed new schedule followed standard and sound archival practice in the selection of research and development policy and program documentation at a functional level. Policy records were captured in 3900/1A, individual projects in 3900/5, and permanent laboratory notebooks in 3900/9. In addition, there were other records series in the 3900 series designated as permanent and whose disposition has been unquestioned to the present time. These include Naval Research Advisory Committee Files (NRAC), Technical Boards and Committees Files, Test and Evaluation Policy Files, Development Test and Evaluation Project Case Files, the Correspondence Files of the Commander Operational Test and Evaluation Force (COMOPTEVFOR), and Operational Test and Evaluation Project Case Files. Unfortunately, however, the NRL laboratory correspondence constituted a special case.

A reading of the appraisal memorandum also indicates that the NARA appraiser believed, based on his own examinations and contacts with Navy lab personnel, that this schedule adequately covered all Navy Research and Development records no matter when they were created or where they were created. He noted that "The general structure of the proposed schedule for R&D records (SSIC 3900 and subparts) closely resembles the series described in the 1961 Navy Manual; this is the way Navy has been maintaining their scientific records since the early 1940s." In retrospect, this assessment was not accurate insofar as the NRL lab correspondence was concerned. According to the NRL archivist, project files were not created at the laboratory until 1949; until then the NRL correspondence files did indeed constitute the "collective memory" of the laboratory. In the joint development of the schedule this fact was not noted by the NRL or remarked upon by the appraiser. Mr. MacKay examined many records personally but he could not, nor was he expected to examine all records; in that respect he was dependent on receiving accurate and complete information on the nature of the records which Navy held. Thus despite close contact with NRL and other Navy lab personnel, the number of laboratories visited, and the number of records personally examined, the potential existed for the destruction of valuable records.

It should be pointed out that both NARA and Navy records management and program personnel cooperated closely in an attempt to document Navy's research and development activities in general. Many series of R&D records were identified as permanent and proposed for transfer to NARA. Even the development of the criteria for the laboratory notebooks by Mr. Bundy was an attempt on his part to ensure the identification and inclusion of all lab notebooks, old as well as new (the disagreement here being not over the age of the records, but whether or not they were permanent according to the stated criteria). But in general it must also be assumed that in light of the schedule approval by Navy records management, that they saw no problem in the application of the schedule to all extant Navy records, including those of the NRL. Had any such problems been identified, current procedures provide for the inclusion of a separate item in the overall schedule or submission of a separate item scheduling those discrete series.

Top of Page

VI. NATIONAL ARCHIVES PROCESSING OF SECNAVINST 5212.5C

Examination of the official dossier for N1-NU-89-5 indicates that processing of the job within the National Archives took place in accordance with all procedures then in effect. By those procedures, schedule items resulting in the creation of electronic records were appraised separately by the Office of the National Archives' Center for Electronic Records (NNX, later NSX). The appraisal decisions reached in terms of electronic records have not to date been questioned and are not addressed in this report. Overall development of the entire schedule, as well as the appraisal of textual records, fell to the Records Appraisal and Disposition Division (NIR) within the Office of Records Administration (NI).

As procedures required, appraisal archivist Richard MacKay discussed his methodology, agency coordination, findings, and appraisal recommendations for the textual records in a 68 page memorandum dated June 30, 1994. Because of the large number of schedule items (786 with 145 appraised for permanent retention), they were grouped generally into series based on the SSIC numbers, with any specific findings, problems, or observations noted to the specific SSIC. The portion of the appraisal memo which addressed Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Records (SSIC 3900-3990) was twelve pages long, beginning on page 57 and continuing through almost to the end of the appraisal memo on page 68. The laboratory correspondence series (SSIC 3900/1) are discussed on pages 60-61. The laboratory notebooks (SSIC 3900/9) are specifically addressed on pages 63-64, which include a discussion of the series contents and proposed selection criteria.

Mr. MacKay's memorandum was routed to National Archives custodial units for informal review and comment prior to formal approval and signature by the Archivist. Responding were the National Archives-Mid Atlantic Region (3NS), National Archives- Great Lakes Region (5NS), National Archives-Pacific Southwest Region (9NS-L), National Archives -Pacific Sierra Region (9NS-S), National Archives -Pacific Southwest Region (10NS), the Military Reference Branch of the Office of the National Archives (NNRM), and the Archival Projects Branch of the Textual Projects Division, Office of the National Archives (NNTA). The latter two units would be responsible for transfer, processing, and reference activity on records accessioned from the Washington National Records Center (WNRC).

None of the aforementioned units questioned Mr. MacKay's appraisal recommendations concerning the laboratory correspondence and the laboratory notebooks. Most praised his work as thorough and well researched. One of the most perceptive comments came from Mr. Robert Gruber of the Archival Projects Branch, which consisted in part of both approval and concern. He approved that "The recommendations seem to strike a reasonable balance between retaining higher level echelon and policy related records while disposing of lower level, supporting, or otherwise ephemeral records." His concern was "In some instances, it requires that retiring offices screen out ephemeral supporting and housekeeping records from permanent program records. This could be a chancy business unless the agency records personnel receive adequate instruction on how to do the work and unless that work is periodically monitored." Mr. Gruber's comments indicate that NARA reviewers obviously recognized some of the potential problems in a disposition statement requiring selection of permanent records from temporary ones.

With completion of informal review and the expiration of the Federal Register comment period, the job was formally approved by NARA units in October 1994 and sent to the Archivist's office for final signature. The reviewer within the Office of the Archivist raised some issues relating to the transfer of scientific data to institutions other than the National Archives, but did not question the dispositions for either the lab correspondence or the lab notebooks. With the resolution of these last issues, the Acting Archivist signed the job on March 20, 1995. Copies were transmitted to the agency and all interested NARA units including the Office of Federal Records Centers (to implement the approved series dispositions) on March 23, 1995. Navy Records management subsequently issued the approved text of N1-NU-89-5 as SECNAVINST 5212.5C.

The legal vehicle for public comments on records schedules consists of a published notice in the Federal Register. In this notice NARA announces the availability of proposed records schedules and invites comments on them. The standard introductory language provides a brief exposition of the scheduling process, including references both to the transfer of permanent records and the destruction of temporary records. The notice also includes a date by which written public requests for schedule copies must be received.

Notice of the availability of Job N1-NU-89-5 for public comment appeared in Volume 56, Number 146 of the Federal Register published on July 30, 1991. The notice read "Department of the Navy (N1-NU-89-5). Routine and facilitative records relating to operations and readiness." The period for requesting the schedule extended to September 13, 1991. Upon the expiration of that time period, no copies had been requested and no public comments received. Designation of this schedule as "routine and facilitative" was not accurate. It contains important records which most definitely should not have been so designated. Since the original publication of this notice, however, NARA has expanded the descriptions published in the Federal Register in a continuing effort to address this issue.

Top of Page

VII. SCHEDULE IMPLEMENTATION OF SECNAVINST 5215.5C

After approval of N1-NU-89-5 (SECNAVINST 5212.5C, Chapter 3) by the Acting Archivist, staff at the Washington National Records Center (WNRC), as well as other nationwide Federal Records Centers, began a "mass data change" to apply the new schedule dispositions to records in its custody. Implementing a mass data change is a routine procedure for Federal Records Centers. There are general instructions issued, and in the case of Chapter 3 there were also 16 numbered specific instructions.

The specific instructions noted that Chapter 3 records covered 70 different SSIC codes from the older manual and 6 previous SF 115 authorities. Together they covered records in 23 National Archives Navy record groups. Instruction 4 therefore noted "In processing the records you should exercise extreme caution, and bear in mind that the MDCW [Mass Data Change Worksheets] cannot be considered as absolute. Some verification and physical inspection of the records will be necessary to ensure that the records were correctly retired under the old disposition authorities. Due to the complexity of these conversions, we have not indicated any instances where mass data changes may be immediately undertaken."

The instructions also noted that some of the old manual authorities were more limited in the new schedule, and that the new schedule emphasized retaining higher echelon and policy records while disposing of lower level supporting records. Instruction 6 recommended the use of the NARA appraisal memo in doing the conversion. "While quite detailed, it is extremely useful, informative and necessary." The last instruction in the mass data change encouraged calls to the NARA appraiser if there were any questions on the appraisal.

The individual responsible for the mass data change at WNRC was Mr. Carl Hancock (now retired). His job was to implement the schedule conversions according to the language contained in the job, not to assess the value of the records. Assessing the continuing value of records in any series in Chapter 3 was the responsibility of the NARA archivist during the appraisal. Mr. Hancock was a conscientious, long serving WNRC staff member with considerable experience in working with both Navy records and data conversions. Mr. MacKay notes that he did receive calls from Mr. Hancock on the schedule implementation, but not on the items in question.

The implementation of the disposition instructions for the NRL lab correspondence appears to have been relatively straightforward. Item 3900/1B, identified quite clearly as files and other records of major laboratories and other activities whose primary function is research and development or testing, was a temporary 10 year record. Examination of the Standard Forms 135 for the destroyed records reveals that their description often included language such as "correspondence" and "subject files" sent to WNRC by the Naval Research Laboratory. The mass data change here was simple in that according to the schedule NRL correspondence and subject files were all disposable.

Implementing the disposition instructions for the laboratory notebooks was more problematical. The series was not totally temporary, but required that a selection be made to identify permanent notebooks using the selection criteria. In this case, examination of the SF 135s for the destroyed records indicates that Mr. Hancock examined several (though not all) of the accessions to determine whether they met the criteria for permanent retention. It may be assumed in the light of actual events that Mr. Hancock, as did the NARA appraiser and other WNRC staff, viewed the selection criteria to be applied as a unit rather than individually. Therefore two of the six SF 135s for destroyed records bear the notation "informal C.L.H." and the date they were examined. Nine other accessions of lab notebooks subsequently frozen or recoded bear the same notation, indicating that Mr. Hancock looked at 11 accessions of lab notebooks totaling some 395 cubic feet in an attempt to apply the schedule disposition instructions at WNRC.

Once the disposition instructions had been implemented and the mass data changes completed, the new disposition authorities applied to each accession covered by Chapter 3 became available to records managers throughout Navy in the Accession Number Master List, more commonly known as the O-1 report. For the NRL copies were sent to Mr. William Guthrie, identified as the NRL records manager prior to June 1997; subsequent to June 1997 (after the destruction of the records) they went to Navy records management. As users of the WNRC storage facility, NRL personnel had access to the NARS database (NARS-5) which also contains the disposition authorities. Before the records at issue were destroyed, neither the NARA appraiser nor WNRC staff received any communication from NRL personnel which questioned the disposition authorities or their application under SECNAVINST 5212.5C. However, at no time did NARA specifically call the recoding changes to the attention of Navy records management or the NRL .

Top of Page

VIII. DISPOSAL OF RECORDS UNDER SECNAVINST 5212.5C

With the signature of the Acting Archivist on March 20, 1995, and its subsequent issuance by the Navy, Chapter 3 of SECNAVINST 5212.5C became the governing disposition authority for all records created under this chapter, NRL records included. There is no indication that at the time of its issuance that personnel in the NRL objected in any way to the way the dispositions were written in regard to laboratory correspondence or laboratory notebooks. During FY 1997, WNRC initiated its normal records disposal cycle for records appraised as temporary under several Navy authorities, including the 3900/1B and 3900/9B(1) authorities. As procedures required, Notices of Intent to Destroy Records (NA Form 13001) were sent to the records officer section Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (NO9B35) as the official Navy point of contact. The language of NA Form 13001 reads in part as follows: "The records described in this notice appear eligible for disposal on the date shown. In accordance with 36 CFR 1228.164c they will be destroyed 90 days from the date of this notice... No other action is required. If you do not concur in the scheduled destruction of these records, you may request extension of the retention period by providing written justification (including a proposed new disposal date) within the 90 day period to the director of the Federal records center indicated at the right [of the form]."

Comments were received back regarding several proposed Navy destructions, but not on the correspondence or the lab notebooks. Receiving no response, WNRC staff assumed agency concurrence and the records eligible for destruction were destroyed during the destruction cycles of October 1996, January 1997, and April 1997. Sixty-three accessions totaling 600 cubic feet of laboratory correspondence were destroyed under 3900/1B and 6 accessions of laboratory notebooks totaling 250 cubic feet under 3900/9B(1).

It appears that all procedures then in effect were followed insofar as the disposal was concerned. At the required time WNRC staff sent the Notice of Intent to Destroy Records (NA Form 13001) to the agency point of contact, in this case the records officer within the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations where such notices previously had been sent. The forms noted that the records would be destroyed in 90 days unless nonconcurrence was indicated. It is known that Navy received the packages of notices containing the NRL records destruction notices for the October 1996 and April 1997 cycles as the head of Navy records management did respond concerning some records in those cycles. Absent a response on the NRL records, they were destroyed as scheduled.

Top of Page

IX. RECORDS STILL REMAINING AFTER DESTRUCTION OF NRL RECORDS

Since the initial destruction of the lab correspondence and notebooks, NARA has placed a national freeze on further destruction of records in the two SSIC categories pending the outcome of this inquiry. The freeze will remain in effect pending a NARA review of issues related to the appraisal of scientific records.

All accessions relating to Navy laboratory correspondence and laboratory notebooks in 3900/1B and 3900/9B(1) and 3900/9B(2) have been recoded as of 12/1/97 to reflect the freeze. At WNRC there remain 228 accessions of 2337 cubic feet frozen under 3900/1B and 17 accessions of 282 cubic feet under 3900/9B. Many of the records in these categories were retired by Navy Research and Development facilities other than NRL.

Specific NRL accessions remaining in WNRC at the present time include 62 accessions (255 cubic feet) of lab correspondence retired under 3900/1B. The inclusive dates for these remaining records are 1946-1988, and they consist mainly of program correspondence for these years. They do not duplicate or cannot be used to reconstruct NRL activity for the earlier (pre World War II or World War II era) time span of the destroyed records. However, some of the records do cover similar time periods as records destroyed.

Also remaining at WNRC are 17 accessions (360 cubic feet) of lab notebooks now coded as 3900/9A. This is a permanent authority, and the Director of the Accession and Disposal Branch subsequently recoded some accessions as permanent after the initial destruction. The inclusive dates of these records are from 1939-1991. Records in these accessions obviously cannot duplicate the individual notebooks destroyed, but the date span is sufficient to enable a researcher to determine the types of research being carried out by NRL during this time span.

In addition to the records remaining as frozen at WNRC, the Naval Research Laboratory Archivist notes the following records of correspondence and laboratory notebooks still physically present in agency space:

200 cubic feet of program records from the 1960s to the present (assumed to be permanent) and 40 cubic feet of administrative and support correspondence from 1993 to the present (assumed to be disposable)

20 cubic feet of laboratory notebooks from the 1960s to the 1980s

Among the accessioned holdings of the NRL already in the National Archives are 81 cubic feet of Naval Research Laboratory General Records 1923-1940 in Record Group 19, Records of the Bureau of Ships. The holdings consist of 119 boxes of unclassified correspondence, 7 boxes of formerly Secret correspondence, 70 boxes of formerly Confidential correspondence, and 4 boxes of formerly Secret correspondence of the Patent section. Box and folder listings exist for these series. Reference staff indicates that the records are used frequently. These records appear to predate the NRL lab correspondence recently destroyed.

Top of Page

X. SUMMARY OF FACTS/CONCLUSIONS

SECNAVINST 5212.5C overall contains a large number of schedule items appraised as permanent and eligible for eventual transfer to the National Archives. The schedule lists 786 total items of which 145 or 18% are permanent. Of the 145 permanent items, 9 are from the 3900-3999 series designated as Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) Records.

Given the volume of records destroyed by WNRC on an annual basis, a basic disagreement between NARA and an agency concerning specific records destruction is extremely rare. However, an examination of the chain of events leading to that destruction is instructive in identifying areas in which the present procedures may be strengthened. The following is a summary of what appear to be the salient facts in this chain of events:

SEVNAVINST 5212.5C was developed jointly between an experienced appraisal archivist of the National Archives and Records Administration and Navy Records Management and Program Staff, including personnel at the Naval Research Laboratory. It was meant to be a national schedule, applicable to all Naval operations and readiness functions, including the operations of the NRL. The NARA appraiser addressed the issues involved in the schedule development in considerable depth, outlining the conclusions reached and how they were reached.

Prior to the issuance of SECNAVINST 5212.5C, laboratory correspondence and laboratory notebooks were scheduled as permanent under a schedule developed in 1961. The permanent items in this older schedule were subsequently changed to "unscheduled," requiring that a full appraisal be done in any new schedule. In the new schedule the laboratory correspondence was made a temporary series totally; the laboratory notebook series was divided into temporary and permanent sections with the permanent lab notebooks identified by application of selection criteria.

Project case file numbers were not issued to NRL projects until 1949. Therefore NRL's laboratory correspondence series contained information on the project work of the laboratory at least to that date. The NARA appraiser examined both NRL correspondence and project case files during his appraisal, but concentrated mainly on the more recently created project case files. The issue of the uniqueness of the information in the correspondence files prior to 1949 was not raised. This uniqueness, known to NRL staff, was therefore not communicated to NARA by the Navy during the schedule development which resulted in laboratory records becoming a temporary series.

The final schedule, with its records disposition statements as agreed to by both parties, was signed by the Acting Archivist on March 20, 1995, and subsequently issued by Navy as SECNAVINST 5212.5C to govern all applicable Navy records covered by the schedule. Neither NARA nor the Navy questioned the approved disposition statements or their applicability to Navy records, past or present.

In retrospect it is clear that the NRL and NARA viewed the disposition language relating to laboratory correspondence and laboratory notebooks differently. NRL staff believed that the laboratory correspondence constituted the "collective memory" of NRL and therefore warranted permanent retention. Likewise, they believed that the laboratory notebook criteria, applied individually or as a unit, would also result in permanent retention. NARA believed that the language of the schedule made laboratory notebooks generally a temporary record and that any permanent laboratory notebooks would conform to all the selection criteria.

After the approval of the schedule, staff at the WNRC recoded NRL records in conformance with the approved disposition language for each series. The recoded dispositions were available to both Navy records management and NRL records management personnel via WNRC records tracking systems. No questions were raised concerning the recoding of the records. However, as noted above, NARA did not specifically bring the recoding changes to the attention of the Navy or the NRL.

When the destruction cycle for temporary records arrived, WNRC in accordance with standard procedures sent Notices of Destruction to the agreed upon Navy records management offices. As Navy responded to some of the notices it may be assumed that the notices reached Navy records management.

When the required 90 day notice had passed without agency notification or objection, WNRC destroyed the records as a part of its regular disposition cycle. NRL staff subsequently became aware of the situation when they requested some of the affected accessions, and were informed that the records had been destroyed.

This summary of facts, developed during the course of the inquiry, indicated systems and procedures which are basically sound, but for which additional mechanisms should be put into place to prevent another unfortunate and unintended destruction of valuable records. The eleven recommendations described on pages 5-7 of this inquiry are an attempt to further develop such mechanisms and safeguards.

Top of Page
Records Managers >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

.