Records Managers

Disposition of Federal Records: A Records Management Handbook



2000 Web Edition (of 1997 printed publication)

Disposition of Federal Records - Table of Contents

Appendix C. Appraisal Guidelines for Permanent Records

These appraisal guidelines take the form of 15 general series and system descriptions intended to illustrate the types of records normally appraised by NARA for permanent, or archival, retention. Records officers should use these descriptions as guides to help identify permanent records, regardless of physical form or characteristics. Because of the wide variety of records accumulated by the Government and because of differences in agency organizations, functions, and recordkeeping systems, these guidelines cannot include all the records that may be eligible for permanent retention.

Many of the records described in this appendix may be created in multiple formats. Sometimes the format is specified, such as in the case of audiovisual and graphic records; but many textual records are increasingly being created electronically, often along with related electronic indexes. If an agency maintains in electronic form any of the records described in this appendix or any indexes related to them, it should bring such records to NARA's attention and not destroy them without NARA's prior approval.

These guidelines apply only to current records whose life cycle has been controlled. Because many important pre20th century records were destroyed by fire, flood, and neglect, otherwise routine administrative, or housekeeping, records are often preserved for that period to document the Government's organization, functions, and activities.

More detailed appraisal guidelines for electronic, audiovisual, and other records appear in the NARA publications "Managing Audiovisual Records" and "Managing Cartographic and Architectural Records" and in records management Frequently Asked Questions.

  1. Records on Organization and Functions.
    1. Organizational charts and reorganization studies. Organizational charts are graphic illustrations providing a detailed description of the arrangement and administrative structure of the functional units of an agency. Reorganization studies, conducted to design an efficient organizational framework to carry out the agency's programs, include materials such as final recommendations, proposals, and staff evaluations. These files also usually contain administrative maps showing regional boundaries and headquarters of decentralized agencies, or the geographic extent or limits of an agency's programs and projects.
    2. Functional statements. These are formally prepared descriptions of the responsibilities assigned to agency officials at the division level and above.
  1. Formal Minutes of Boards and Commissions.

    These document substantive policy and procedural decisions, especially when a board or commission rather than an individual appointee gives an agency executive direction. Typically, these agencies are regulatory bodies but also include organizations such as the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation and the Commission of Fine Arts. Minutes may be literal transcriptions or edited summaries. Audio or video recordings of the meetings also should be preserved.

  1. Records of Internal Agency, Interagency, and NonFederal Committees.

    Included are minutes, agenda, proposals submitted for review, and final recommendations of meetings of ad hoc committees as well as more formally established councils, conferences (e.g., White House Conferences), and task forces and study groups attended by senior agency officials. Meetings may be limited to internal agency personnel or may include representatives from other Federal agencies or nonFederal groups. The minutes may be summaries, verbatim transcripts, or audio or video recordings. Records selected for permanent retention to document interagency meetings normally are those of the agency designated as the group's secretariat.

  1. Legal Opinions and Comments on Legislation. These are memorandums prepared by an agency's legal counsel or program officials on interpretations of existing laws and regulations, or the effects of proposed laws and regulations governing the agency or having a direct effect on its operations. Records selected concern the agency's primary missions and normally exclude general opinions and comments relating to other Federal agencies. Included are formal comments on pending legislation prepared at the request of the Congress or the Office of Management and Budget. Most of these records are permanent when created in the offices of general counsels of departments and independent agencies. Excluded are copies of bills, hearings, and statutes held for convenient reference. Similar records maintained below the departmental level may or may not be permanent depending on their content and relationship to records of the departmental counsel.
  1. Formal Directives, Procedural Issuances, and Operating Manuals Relating to Program Functions.

    Formal directives are distributed as orders, circulars, or manuals announcing major changes in the agency's policies and procedures. Normally these are issued by authority of the agency's head. Extensive procedures are frequently detailed in lengthy operating manuals. NARA generally designates as permanent those formal directives, procedural issuances, and operating manuals relating to program functions, but generally not those relating to routine administrative, or housekeeping, functions.

  1. Selected Evaluations of Internal Operations.

    These are studies conducted to determine the effectiveness of the procedures adopted to achieve established policy goals. Audit case files are generally excluded. The studies may include evaluations of both program and administrative operations and may be made by the agency itself (inspectors general) or by outside oversight agencies (e.g., General Accounting Office). Only those studies recommending significant changes in policies and procedures merit preservation. Studies prepared by outside oversight agencies should be proposed as permanent by the creating agency. All other copies that have not been annotated or integrated into operational files are disposable.

  1. Analytical Research Studies and Periodic Reports.

    This category includes analytical research studies and periodic reports prepared by the agency, or by private organizations or individuals under contract to the agency or in receipt of a grant from the agency. Studies and reports selected for permanent retention may be statistical or narrative and may be recorded on paper, electronic, audiovisual, or other media. Regional reports prepared by field offices and forwarded to the agency's headquarters are frequently permanent because they contain information on ethnic, social, economic, or other aspects of specific localities. Sometimes only selected studies and reports are designated as permanent. Excluded from selection are published studies and reports included elsewhere in the agency's record set of publications. (See guideline 11 for publications permanently retained.)

  1. Agency Histories and Selected Background Materials.

    This category consists mainly of narrative agency histories and histories of agency programs, including oral history projects completed by agency historians, public affairs officers, or private historians under agency contract. Some background materials, such as interviews with past and present personnel, generated during the research stage may also be selected for permanent retention.

  1. Briefing Materials.

    These consist of statistical and narrative reports and other summaries, including audiovisual materials, created to inform agency heads and their senior advisers of the agency's current status or of major issues confronting the agency. They may be used to prepare such officials for hearings, press conferences, or major addresses.

  1. Public Relations Records.
    1. Speeches, addresses, and comments. These include remarks made at formal ceremonies and during interviews by agency heads or their senior assistants concerning agency programs and activities. The speeches and addresses may be presented to executives from other Federal agencies, representatives of State and local governments, or private groups, such as university students and members of business associations and cultural organizations. Interviews may be granted to radio, television, or printed news commentators. The medium selected may be paper, audiovisual, microform, or electronic.
    2. News releases. These consist of one copy of each prepared statement or announcement issued by the agency's public affairs office for distribution to the news media regarding such significant events as the adoption of new agency programs, the termination of old programs, major shifts in policy, and changes in senior agency personnel. The medium selected may be paper, audiovisual, microform, or electronic. Excluded are news releases that provide only transitory or routine information.
  1. Publications.

    This category consists of formal publications printed or issued by the Government Printing Office, the National Technical Information Service, an outside contractor, or the agency itself. Examples include annual reports to the Congress; studies conducted by the agency or under contract for the agency; and procedural brochures, pamphlets, and handbooks distributed for guidance to other Federal agencies, State and local governments, and private organizations and citizens. Also included are maps and posters as well as instructional and educational materials in audiovisual form (audio or video recordings, motion pictures, filmstrips, and slidetape productions) and film productions and television and radio programs prepared to furnish information on agency policies or to promote agency programs and operations. Even though there may be reference copies of audiovisual publications in nonFederal depositories, the Government still needs to retain the original production elements and related textual records required to ensure the preservation and facilitate the use of such audiovisual publications.

  1. Selected Audiovisual and Graphic Records.

    These consist of agency originated motion pictures, still photographs, posters, audio and video recordings, cartographic materials, and architectural drawings created to record substantive events or information that cannot be or normally is not recorded in written form, along with related records needed to identify and facilitate the use of such records. Examples include instantaneous recordings or photographic coverage of significant scientific or technological phenomena and significant nonrecurring events, such as combat operations, lunar and planetary explorations, extemporaneous occurrences, discussions, and interviews. Also included are maps recording topographic information for specific geographic areas as well as architectural or engineering drawings of significant Federal buildings and other structures.

  1. General Correspondence, or Subject, Files Documenting Substantive Agency Programs.

    These files include correspondence with the President and the Executive Office of the President, Members of Congress and congressional committees, other Federal agencies, and private organizations and individuals; internal agency memorandums; narrative and statistical reports; budget estimates and justifications; and other records documenting all of the agency's substantive program functions. Whether in paper or electronic form, these records show the development of major policies and procedures and are often designated for permanent retention when created at the following levels: Secretary; under secretary; deputy secretary; assistant secretary; administrators, chairpersons, commissioners, and directors of administrations, bureaus, and services within a department; and heads of independent Federal agencies and their chief assistants. When the agency's important programs are not documented in correspondence maintained at these higher levels, NARA generally designates as permanent similar records created at lower office levels.

    How many general correspondence files are selected as permanent depends not only on their importance but also on the extent of their duplication at various office levels. Where substantial duplication exists, those created at the highest level should be chosen. Where little or no duplication exists, those at more than one level may be chosen for permanent retention.

  1. Selected Case Files.

    Many Federal records are maintained as case files, which are records, regardless of media, documenting a specific action, event, person, place, project, or other matter. Sometimes called project or transaction files, they document particular agency activities from initiation to conclusion. Although the case files in most series or systems are scheduled for disposal, sometimes NARA designates all of those in a series or system for permanent retention, especially when they are electronic master files. Occasionally, however, NARA selects only a few of those in a series or system for permanent retention. Individual case files may be chosen because the case meets one or more of the following criteria:

    1. It establishes a precedent and results in a major policy or procedural change.
    2. It is involved in extensive litigation.
    3. It receives widespread attention from the news media.
    4. It is widely recognized for its uniqueness by specialists or authorities outside the Government.
    5. It is reviewed at length in the agency's annual report to the Congress.
    6. It constitutes a significant accumulation of documentary material and information on a particular subject (a "fat file").
    7. It is selected to document agency procedures rather than capture information on the subject of the individual file.


    Criteria "a" through "f" indicate the exceptional nature of particular case files, whereas criterion "g" relates to routine files chosen because they illustrate the agency's procedures. Individual case files selected as permanent under these criteria may include, but are not limited to, research grants awarded for studies; research and development projects; investigative, enforcement, and litigation case files; social service and welfare case files; labor relations case files; case files related to developing natural resources and preserving historic sites; and public works case files.

    Sometimes a case file series may be approved for disposal because the agency maintains an electronic index containing extensive information on the cases. Such indexes themselves may be selected for permanent retention. NARA may also select as permanent those final reports and decisions drawn from case files but maintained separately.

  1. Selected Data.
    1. Scientific and technical data. These data result from observations of natural events or phenomena or from con trolled laboratory or field experiments. They generally are created at project or operating levels rather than at higher office levels. They may be found in laboratory notebooks, completed forms, tabulations and computations, graphs, microforms, and electronic files. Generally data selected for permanent retention are unique, accurate, comprehensive, and complete, and they are actually or potentially applicable to a wide variety of research problems.
    2. Social and economic microdata. These are unsummarized data collected for input into periodic and onetime studies and statistical reports including information filed to comply with Government regulations. The information may be on such subjects as economic conditions, taxes, health care, demographic trends, education, discrimination, and other social science areas. It may also consist of data on natural resources including their use, condition, and ownership; emergency operations including military actions and civil strife; political and judicial proceedings; national security activities; and international relations. Although agency reports and studies, briefing materials, and official releases often summarize these data, the unsummarized information, usually in the form of electronic records, may have permanent value.

In conclusion, many of the records described in this appendix are increasingly created in electronic form. For more detailed guidance on potentially permanent electronic records, agencies should refer to the examples given in Chapter V of this handbook

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