Records Managers

Disposition of Federal Records: A Records Management Handbook



2000 Web Edition (of 1997 printed publication)

Disposition of Federal Records - Table of Contents

VI.   Schedule Implementation
VI.   Schedule Implementation
  • Implementing an approved comprehensive records schedule involves issuing it as an agency directive, training appropriate employees, and applying the schedule to agency records.

  • The agency directive(s) should include not only approved records schedules but also related information about the entire records disposition program.

  • Effectively applying records schedules depends in large part on the proper training of agency employees.

  • Permanent records require special care while in agency custody.

  • Agencies should use Standard Form 258 to transfer permanent records to the National Archives.

  • Records may be donated only with NARA's approval.

  • With few exceptions, before transferring records to other agencies, the creating agency needs NARA's approval.

  • In some circumstances NARA may approve a temporary extension of retention periods or withdraw disposal authority.

  • Agencies must report to NARA any unauthorized disposition of Federal records.

  • Records schedules must be reviewed annually and updated whenever necessary.

Introduction

Each agency should implement its approved comprehensive records schedule by issuing it as a directive, training appropriate employees to use it, and carefully applying its provisions to both permanent and temporary records. The schedule should be reviewed at least annually and updated whenever necessary by following the procedures described in this chapter.

Figure 6-1. Implementing an Agency Records Schedule

Preliminary Steps

Issuing the schedule as a directive indicates its mandatory nature. The published schedule should combine the NARA-approved GRS and SF 115 disposition authorities for recurring records, along with instructions for retention and disposition of nonrecord materials. It should not contain any one-time authorities covering nonrecurring records. At the time the schedule is issued, it is essential to train those employees responsible for applying the schedule.

Before applying the schedule for the first time to an office's records, the agency should take these steps:

  • Review the office's functions.

  • Consult a current inventory of the office's records.

  • Match the records identified in the inventory with those described in the agency's schedule, and alert the records manager to any unscheduled records.

  • Develop a file plan for each office. An office file plan is a document containing the identifying number, title or description, and disposition authority of files held in an office. Figure 6-2 shows a suggested file plan form.

Before the schedule is applied in an office with an established records disposition program and a file plan, it is necessary to check the file plan against the schedule. The file plan should contain up-to-date and accurate disposition authorities and retention periods for all records and nonrecord materials maintained in the office.

General Guidelines

Unless the schedule specifies otherwise, disposition authorities apply retroactively to all existing records described in the schedule. Such records include those acquired by transfer of function within or between agencies, as long as there is no change in the nature, content, and functional importance of the record series or system.

In applying the schedule, the agency should take these actions:

  • Avoid filing unnecessary materials, such as extra copies in the same series.
  • Cut off, or break, files regularly.

  • Transfer eligible records to an agency storage facility or a Federal records center.

  • Promptly destroy or properly donate temporary records when their retention periods expire.

  • Care for permanent records until their timely transfer to the National Archives.

In the process the agency should review the schedule at least annually and update it, whenever necessary, by using new or revised GRS authorities or by submitting an SF 115 to NARA.


Issuing the Schedule

Making the Schedule a Directive

Whether they are derived from the GRS or from an SF 115, NARA-approved records disposition authorities are mandatory. Except for one-time authorities covering nonrecurring records, all disposition authorities should be incorporated into the agency's directives system to ensure proper distribution and application of the schedule. The directive should cite the GRS or SF 115 and item numbers for all schedule items covering records. It should also cite any agency and Privacy Act restrictions for each series or system of records authorized for eventual destruction. Before issuing this directive and related procedural directives, the agency may wish to consult with NARA.

If the agency has scheduled its records one office or one function at a time, it may issue each schedule as approved until all its records and nonrecord materials are covered. All schedules issued should be consolidated into a comprehensive schedule. The schedule, or schedules, should be issued as a directive, reviewed at least annually, and updated whenever necessary. The directive may be published in a looseleaf format to permit easy updating.

Internal distribution of the directive should include at least the following:

  • All staff officials.

  • All office, bureau, division, and branch heads.

  • All custodians of major record holdings, such as central files.

  • All records management liaison officers.

Agencies need to send NARA 20 copies of all formally published directives containing schedules and schedule changes. They must also send NARA three copies of any other directive or issuance affecting the agency's records disposition program. (See 36 CFR 1228.)

Including Related Program Information

Besides transmitting the schedules, the directive should include detailed information on the agency's records disposition program unless a related program directive already does so. (See Chapter I.) The directive should include the following:

  • A statement of the program's objectives.

  • Any necessary information from laws and regulations governing records disposition, including citations.

  • A description of NARA's oversight responsibilities in records management, particularly records disposition.

  • Definitions of relevant terms in a glossary.

  • Provisions for proper training of all employees taking part in the agency's records disposition activities.

  • Instructions on how to maintain and cut off files.

  • A statement that the records schedule authorities must be applied to all relevant agency records on a continuing basis.

  • Provisions for keeping records schedules current.

  • Procedures for retiring records to, and retrieving them from, agency records centers or holding areas, if applicable, and NARA-operated records centers.

  • Instructions on the disposal of temporary records in agency space and guidance on the NARA records center system of disposal notification.

  • Instructions for transferring permanent records to the National Archives.

  • An indication of the records officer's involvement in developing and monitoring electronic and other recordkeeping systems to ensure proper disposition.

  • Provisions for periodic evaluation of the agency's records management program, including records disposition.

Training Employees

When a new or revised comprehensive records schedule is issued, the agency needs to train those employees responsible for applying the schedule and carrying out other aspects of the records disposition program. Such employees include records management staff members (if not already trained), records liaison officers in central and field offices, and files custodians. This is also an ideal time to brief program managers regarding records disposition and other aspects of the records management program.

For general training, resources are available from NARA records centers. Besides multiagency courses, NARA provides customized training to individual agencies on a reimbursable basis. Training opportunities are described on the NARA records management training web page.


Applying the Schedule to Permanent Records

Permanent records are those determined by NARA to have sufficient historical or other value to warrant continued preservation by the Federal Government, generally as part of the National Archives, unless otherwise agreed to by NARA. Their disposition authority comes from NARA-approved SFs 115. The agency must give special attention to these records and transfer them to the National Archives in accordance with the schedule's instructions and with regulations (36 CFR 1228) and guidance issued by NARA.

Caring for Permanent Records

Permanent records require special attention and should be scheduled for transfer to the legal custody of the National Archives as soon as the agency no longer needs them for current operations. They should be created on archival-quality media and kept properly and in good order. For example, they should be stored in appropriate containers and facilities and not be intermixed with other permanent or temporary records.

To prevent their loss or destruction, the records officer should keep a current list of permanent records. The list should identify them by schedule item number and show locations, custodians, and any transfer instructions.

If permanent records are no longer needed in current office space but are not yet ready for scheduled transfer to the National Archives, they often can be stored in a records center or else in an agency holding area set aside exclusively for such records. If no such offsite storage is possible, they should at least be kept separate from the office's temporary records. Besides meeting general requirements for storing records properly, each agency must store its microform, audiovisual, and electronic records under conditions complying with the requirements of 36 CFR 1230, 1232, and 1234.

Permanent electronic records, for example, require special care and storage. Necessary steps include controlling temperature and humidity, recopying the information periodically, and testing the readability of an annual sample. Specific requirements are set forth in 36 CFR 1234.

Caring for permanent audiovisual records likewise requires special procedures. These include separating them from nonpermanent records; filing separately the master and use copies, such as negatives and prints; using captions or their equivalent for identification purposes; and recording unique identification numbers on every negative jacket or storage container as well as on all corresponding prints or other use copies. Specific requirements are set forth in 36 CFR 1232 and explained in the NARA publication Managing Audiovisual Records.

If an agency wishes to lend permanent or unscheduled records to a non-Federal user, it must first obtain NARA's written approval by submitting a letter of request that includes the information required by 36 CFR 1228. All formally executed loan agreements for such records must have the signature of the Archivist of the United States before their implementation. If the loan request is denied, the Archivist will notify the agency and provide written instructions for the disposition of the records.

Transferring Permanent Records to the National Archives

The agency's records schedule should contain instructions for transferring permanent records to the National Archives, including both timing and blocking instructions. (See Chapter IV for examples of such instructions.) The transfer's timing should be based on the length of time after the records are cut off. It is normally within 30 years of the cutoff for paper records, within 5-10 years for audiovisual or microform records, and as soon as electronic records become inactive or the agency cannot meet maintenance requirements for them.

The schedule's blocking instructions are also important in the transfer of permanent records. Blocking means the chronological grouping of records consisting of one or more segments of cutoff records that belong to the same series and are dealt with as a unit for efficient transfer (e.g., transfer in 5-year blocks). Blocking does not apply to permanent electronic records because they need to be transferred to the National Archives as soon as they become inactive or can no longer be maintained properly.

In addition to the schedule's instructions, the agency's disposition program directive should explain how to transfer permanent records to the National Archives.

Permanent records more than 30 years old must be transferred to the National Archives unless the agency head certifies in writing to the Archivist of the United States that the records must be retained in the agency to conduct its regular current business. This certification must meet the requirements set forth in 36 CFR 1228. Permanent records may be transferred earlier if the agency no longer needs them and if any proposed restrictions on their use are acceptable to the National Archives.

Each agency needs to send NARA a report identifying and describing all permanent or unscheduled records in the agency's legal custody if they are more than 30 years old, unless they are held in a NARA records center. The report is to be made on NA Form 13148, which includes detailed instructions.

While records stored in records centers remain in the transferring agency's legal custody, permanent records transferred to the National Archives pass to the legal custody of the Archivist of the United States. The form documenting the legal transfer of permanent records is Standard Form 258, Agreement to Transfer Records to the National Archives of the United States. (See figure 6-4.) In using the SF 258 to transfer permanent records to the National Archives, agencies must comply with NARA regulations and bulletins, including special requirements for electronic, audiovisual, and microform records. (See 36 CFR 1228, 1230, 1232, and 1234.)

If permanent records are stored in a NARA records center at the time of the scheduled transfer, the center's computer system will automatically generate the SF 258 for agency action. After the agency submits the SF 258 and NARA approves it, the records will be transferred from records center space to the National Archives.

If the permanent records to be transferred are stored in agency space, the National Archives will contact the agency and provide shipping or delivery instructions. If the records are stored in a records center, the National Archives will contact the records center. Legal custody of the records passes to NARA when the NARA official signs the SF 258 to acknowledge receipt of the records or occasionally to confirm their deposit in another location as specified in a NARA-approved agreement.

The NARA records management publications contain more detailed guidance on transferring these types of permanent records to the National Archives.


Applying the Schedule to Temporary Records

Temporary records are those determined by NARA to be disposable, or nonpermanent. Either through an approved SF 115 or the GRS, NARA approves them for destruction or occasionally for donation to an eligible person or organization.

NARA-approved retention periods for temporary records are normally mandatory, but exceptions may be made. In rare instances, certain individual files may have permanent value lacking in the other records found in a series or system scheduled as temporary. For example, if particular cases attract congressional and national media attention or lead to significant changes in policy or procedures, they may well deserve special consideration even if they are part of a series scheduled for disposal. If such a case comes to the agency's attention, the records officer should consult with the NARA appraisal archivist before submitting an SF 115 to cover the particular file that appears to warrant permanent retention. Normally, however, temporary records should be disposed of promptly in accordance with a NARA-approved records schedule.

Destruction of Temporary Records

Most temporary records are authorized for destruction when their retention periods expire. Methods of destruction include:

  • Sale or salvage of the record medium. This is the normal method unless quantities are too small, the market price is too low, or processing time is too great. Paper records are normally sold as wastepaper. The record medium of nonpaper records, such as audiovisual or electronic records, is normally salvaged for reuse or sale. Security-classified or otherwise restricted records require special procedures, including witnessed destruction. Executive Order 12356 governs the destruction of security-classified documents. Specific laws (including the Privacy Act) and regulations govern the destruction of other restricted records. Any sale contract for unrestricted records must prohibit their resale as records or documents. Finally, all sales must comply with the procedures for the sale of surplus personal property. (See 41 CFR 101-45.)

  • Burning, pulping, shredding, macerating, or discarding with other waste materials. Records without national security or other restrictions may be discarded with other waste materials. These methods are used when the record medium cannot be advantageously sold or salvaged.

If temporary records are stored in a NARA records center when their retention periods expire, they are destroyed according to procedures set forth in NARA regulations (36 CFR 1228) and bulletins and publications.

Exceptions to Destruction of Temporary Records

Temporary records may be donated to an eligible person or organization, but only after the agency has obtained NARA's approval. (See 36 CFR 1228.) To obtain such approval, the agency needs to send NARA a letter of request with the following information:

  • The name of the department or agency and the units having custody of the records.

  • The name and address of the proposed recipient of the records.

  • A list identifying by series or system the records to be transferred, indicating their inclusive dates, and citing the NARA disposition job (SF 115) or GRS and item numbers authorizing disposal of the records.

  • Evidence that (1) the proposed transfer is in the best interests of the Government, (2) the proposed recipient agrees not to sell the records, and (3) the transfer will cost the Government nothing.

  • Certification that (1) the records contain no information whose disclosure is prohibited by law or contrary to the public interest, (2) any records donated to a person or business relate directly to the custody or operation of property acquired from the Government, and/or (3) any foreign government desiring the records has an official interest in them.

After reviewing the agency's request, NARA will determine whether the donation is in the public interest and will then notify the agency in writing of its approval or disapproval. If NARA disapproves, the agency must destroy the records in accordance with the proper disposal authority.


Reviewing and Updating the Schedule

Introduction

Agencies need to review their records schedules at least annually and update them whenever necessary, including within 6 months of receipt of a NARA issuance of new or revised GRS items. As agencies change, so do their records. These changes include the following:

  • Changes in legislation or program regulations.

  • Changes in program priorities, policies, procedures, or information flow.

  • Discontinued programs and responsibilities.

  • New programs and responsibilities.

  • The impact of automation on records, such as electronic or microform systems that replace paper-based systems.

  • Internal reorganizations affecting the nature, content, and importance of existing records, especially in agencies arranging their schedules organizationally.
  • Increases or decreases in office space.

Figure 6-5. Reviewing and Updating Agency Records Schedules

These changes can make it necessary to add, revise, or delete schedule items covering record series and systems. It may also be necessary to update instructions for handling nonrecord materials and for transferring records. In making any schedule changes, agencies should follow the procedures described in Chapter V.

Annual reviews or spot checks can reveal situations affecting the schedule. In large agencies, records officers should ask liaison personnel to report any proposed schedule changes on a form such as the one in figure 6-6.

New Schedule Items

Some series or systems may be missing from the schedule because they were overlooked during the inventory. Others result from new programs or new responsibilities for old programs. While a new agency has 2 years to develop a comprehensive schedule, an established agency must schedule the records of a new program within 1 year of the program's implementation.

Revised Schedule Items

Schedule items typically need revision for three reasons:

  • Lack of clarity. The approved schedule may have items with unclear descriptions or imprecise disposition instructions. Files custodians may not be able to match schedule items to their records. Or they may find that the retention periods are based on a rare event or on an incorrect cutoff date. Case files normally filed together may appear on the schedule as several series with different retention periods. Or a schedule item may need revision because a form has had its number changed or been merged with other forms. Finally, unclear schedule descriptions may have resulted from incorrect inventory information. Whatever the source of the problem, it needs to be corrected promptly. An agency must submit an SF 115 to modify the retention period of a record series or system or to change the substance of the description. An SF 115 is unnecessary if the changes are merely editorial ones not affecting the final disposition or the description's substance.

  • Inadequate retention periods for non-GRS items. Experience may show that the original retention periods may be too long or too short. To identify records held too long, agencies should concentrate first on those record series or systems with retention periods exceeding 10 years and then on those with shorter retention periods. Whatever the proposed change in retention period, it is necessary to submit an SF 115 to NARA to request approval.

  • New or revised GRS items. Whenever NARA issues a change to the GRS, the agency has 6 months to update its comprehensive schedule covering any applicable records. This update is unnecessary if the agency has already received approval of a shorter retention period in a NARA-approved SF 115, provided NARA has not stated otherwise. It is also unnecessary if the agency submits an SF 115 requesting and receiving NARA's approval of an exception to the GRS disposition standard.

Discontinued Series or Systems

Some records described in the agency schedule may no longer accumulate because:

  • A function is transferred by statute, Executive order, or treaty to another agency. Before transferring the records, the creating agency should destroy all temporary records whose retention periods have expired. As soon as it loses custody of the remaining records, the agency should delete the relevant items from its schedule.

  • An agency program is terminated. After meeting its immediate needs, the agency should destroy all temporary records whose retention periods have expired and retire the remainder to a records center unless all the records can be proposed for immediate destruction. The schedule items should remain in effect until all applicable records are disposed of or transferred to the National Archives.

Nonrecord Material Coverage

Since a comprehensive schedule also contains disposition instructions for nonrecord materials, the agency should review these instructions for accuracy and clarity and make any necessary changes. The instructions should include a warning against mixing such materials with the office's records and against letting them proliferate in expensive office space.

Cutoff Instructions

The schedule should be reviewed for any necessary revisions to the instructions for cutting off, or breaking, records. (See chapter V of this handbook for general guidance on record cutoffs.)

Transfer Instructions

The agency should review its instructions for transferring records to agency storage areas, records centers, and the National Archives to ensure compliance with agency needs and NARA regulations. The schedule and related directives should be amended to require the prompt and systematic transfer of eligible records to such storage facilities. If the agency needs to change its instructions for transferring records to records centers or the National Archives, it should not submit an SF 115 but simply send NARA a letter of request, citing the appropriate SF 115.


Related Disposition Matters

In implementing and updating a comprehensive records schedule, each agency should be aware of related disposition matters. These include screening files, superseding a disposition authority, transferring records to other agencies, temporarily extending retention periods, having disposal authority withdrawn, and destroying records in an emergency. Above all, they involve monitoring schedule implementation to prevent the unauthorized disposition of Federal records.

The Screening Process

In records disposition, screening means examining files to identify and remove documents of short-term value, particularly when they are mixed with long-term or permanent records. This process usually involves paper-based files. Decisions to screen, or weed, paper-based files require rigorous analysis because of the cost involved. The amount of time and money spent depends on whether or not:

  • Complete folders, or at least sections of folders, can be removed.

  • It is easy to identify the materials to be removed.

  • The records are easily accessible.

  • Physical processing, such as removal of paper clips or fasteners, is unnecessary.

Screening is no substitute for following proper filing procedures, and it should be unnecessary if such procedures are in effect. It is normally cost-effective only if the records to be retained are permanent, are scheduled for periods exceeding 30 years, or constitute less than half of the file. Alternatives to screening paper-based files include retaining them in the office until final disposition, moving them to an agency holding area, or retiring them intact to a records center. The best way to avoid screening problems is to make sure that permanent or long-term records are not filed with short-term records or with nonrecord materials.

Supersession of Disposition Authority

If two SF 115 authorities cover the same record series or system, the more recent authorization applies, even though it may require longer retention. New or revised GRS items supersede NARA-approved SF 115 items unless the latter have shorter retention periods or unless the agency obtains NARA's approval of an exception to the GRS standard.

Transfers of Records to Other Agencies

In accordance with NARA regulations (36 CFR 1228), agencies must obtain NARA's written approval before transferring records to another executive agency. NARA's approval is unnecessary when the transfer is required by statute, Executive order, Presidential reorganization plan, or treaty or when the records are transferred to records centers or the National Archives. It is also unnecessary when the records are lent for official use or when the transfer is between two parts of the same executive department. The agency's letter requesting such approval should include the following information:

  • A concise description of the records, including inclusive dates and the volume in cubic feet.

  • Any access restrictions, including those placed on classified information.

  • The agencies and persons using the records and the purpose of this use.

  • The current and proposed physical and organizational locations of the records.

  • Justification of the proposed transfer, including an explanation as to why it is in the best interests of the Federal Government.

Along with the letter, the agency should send copies of concurrences by the other agencies concerned.

If agencies wish to transfer records to recipients other than Federal agencies, they should follow NARA regulations for donating records, which are discussed earlier in this chapter. If permanent or unscheduled records are proposed for loan to non-Federal recipients, NARA's prior approval is required.

Temporary Extension of Retention Periods

Program audits, litigation, investigations, or other special circumstances may require the retention of record series or systems beyond their scheduled destruction date. According to NARA regulations 36 CFR 1228), an agency may request approval of a temporary extension by sending NARA a letter. The letter should contain a concise description of the records and a complete citation of the schedule items governing the disposition of the records. It should also contain the estimated length of the extension and the current and proposed physical location of the records, including specific records centers.

If NARA approves a temporary extension for records of one agency, it will notify that agency by letter. If it approves such an extension for records common to several or all agencies, it will issue a bulletin. If records in records centers are affected, the agency should send NARA 20 copies of all formal instructions on extending retention periods. When the approved extension expires, NARA will notify the affected agencies to resume applying the normal retention periods.

NARA's approval is unnecessary when a court order requires the retention of records beyond the scheduled retention period. Agencies need to notify NARA of the extension within 30 days after the court order was issued. Besides enclosing a copy of the court order, they should provide the same information as required in the letter of request.

Separate procedures govern individual shipments of records retired to a records center. If the records center sends the agency a notice of intent to destroy specified records eligible for disposal, the agency may send the records center a letter requesting longer retention of such records if it provides written justification, including a new disposal date, and if it makes the request within 90 days of the records centers notice. If the agency wants to make a lasting change in the retention period of records in a series or system, it needs to follow the procedures for submitting an SF 115 to NARA.

Withdrawal of Disposal Authority

In emergencies or for reasons of efficiency, NARA is authorized to withdraw, temporarily or permanently, disposal authority previously granted. It will do so whenever the disposal would harm Government interests or individual rights. If the withdrawal affects only one agency, NARA will send a letter of notification. If it affects more than one agency, a NARA bulletin will be issued. If the withdrawal is only temporary, agencies will be notified when to resume applying the normal retention periods; but if it is lasting, NARA will issue further instructions.

Emergency Destruction of Records

Under certain conditions, agencies may destroy records regardless of schedule provisions. Such conditions involve:

  • Records whose physical condition makes them a menace to human health or life and to property. They may be infested by vermin or may be stored under such adverse conditions that they cannot be used or repaired. In accordance with NARA regulations (36 CFR 1228), the agency must obtain NARA's prior approval, except for records stored on nitrate film. If an agency decides such film threatens humans or property, it is authorized to destroy it. Within 30 days the agency head must send NARA a written report describing the film and explaining when, where, and how it was destroyed. Before destroying nitrate film, the agency should be aware of the conditions under which it actually poses a threat to persons and property. Such conditions exist when the film becomes soft and sticky, emits a noxious odor, contains gas bubbles, or has retrograded into an acrid powder. NARA provides guidance to agencies regarding how to handle nitrate film and how to correct certain infestation problems through fumigation.

  • Records outside the territorial limits of the continental United States when war or other hostile action exists or threatens. The agency head may authorize the destruction of such records on grounds of harm to U.S. interests or of urgent space needs for military operations combined with a lack of sufficient administrative, legal, research, or other value to warrant continued preservation (44 U.S.C. 3311). Within 6 months the agency official responsible for the destruction must send NARA a written statement describing the records and explaining when and where they were destroyed.

Unauthorized Disposition of Federal Records

Both NARA and agencies are responsible for preventing the unauthorized disposition of Federal records, including their unlawful or accidental destruction, defacement, alteration, or removal from Federal custody. Agencies should carefully monitor the implementation of approved records schedules to prevent such unauthorized disposition. They should also inform their employees that the unauthorized disposition of Federal records is against the law (44 U.S.C. 3106) and may lead to a $2,000 fine, a 3-year imprisonment, or both (18 U.S.C. 2071). Employees should be instructed to report any such violations of the law.

Figure 6-7. Poster on Safeguarding Federal Records

Agency heads must report to NARA any unlawful or accidental removal, defacing, alteration, or destruction of records in the custody of their agency (See 36 CFR 1228.) The report should include the following:

  • A complete description of the records, along with volume and dates if known.

  • The office of origin.

  • An explanation of the exact circumstances surrounding the unauthorized action.

  • Details, when appropriate, of the actions taken to salvage, retrieve, or reconstruct the records.

  • A statement of safeguards established to prevent further losses.

NARA will assist the agency head in contacting the Attorney General to recover any unlawfully removed records. If the agency head does not notify the Attorney General within a reasonable time, NARA will request action by the Attorney General and so inform the Congress.


Conclusion

After a comprehensive schedule has been properly prepared and approved, it can be effective only if it is implemented properly and updated whenever necessary. Effectiveness also depends on understanding the related records disposition matters discussed in this chapter. At the same time it is necessary to manage the entire records disposition program, based on a review of agency recordkeeping requirements and practices. Evaluating the program is an important part of this management process and will be described in Chapter VII of this handbook.

Note: Web version may vary from the printed version.

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