About the National Archives

What's a Record?

Do you save letters and cards that you receive from friends and relatives? Does your family have photo albums or videos of birthday parties and vacations? Where is your birth certificate stored?

All these mementos and documents tell a story about you. They help you remember the past and become evidence for future generations seeking a look at your world today.

Now, think about the United States. Billions of letters, photographs, video and audio recordings, drawings, maps, treaties, posters, and other informative materials exist that tell the stories of America’s history as a nation. From the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights to census records that account for every citizen—the preservation of important American documents helps illustrate what happened in the United States before and after we were born.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is America’s record keeper. NARA is the Government agency that not only preserves documents and materials related to the United States but also makes sure people can access the information. It has facilities all over the country, including Presidential libraries and materials projects that maintain records and artifacts from the administrations of Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and William J. Clinton.

Records have "Lifecycles"

Every day in Federal Government agencies, important documents are created. For example, the President may be signing an Executive order; the navy may be gathering data about a new fighter jet; and the Department of Education may be publishing a new resource for teachers. What happens to those documents?

Usually, they follow the “lifecycle of records,” a process for organizing, storing, and using records. Officials at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) help documents through this process.

A person or organization in the Federal Government produces or receives a record.

Maintenance and use:
While being used, the record is organized and stored with similar material.

A record is evaluated. The creator of a record proposes to the National Archives how long it should be kept. Some records are destroyed (for example, a receipt for the purchase of pencils), while others are kept permanently in the National Archives (such as executive orders). Records schedules are set up to determine how long all Federal records are to be kept by the Government. Only 1–3% of all records are kept permanently, but the total number of documents in the National Archives number in the billions, and the number keeps growing.

Arrangement and description:
Records are put in new boxes and folders at the National Archives. Archivists and archives specialists then write brief summaries of what is contained in the records, which agency created them, and why.

Records are protected from damage. They may be old or fragile, or like videotapes, they wear out, or like floppy disks, they become obsolete.

Archivists assist researchers in making use of records. An archivist, archives specialist or archives technician can help in person at one of the National Archives’ facilities, on the telephone, through information on the archives.gov website, or by mail.

Continuing use:
Records are sometimes displayed or shared for reasons other than their original purpose. For example, when the United States wrote a check to Russia to purchase Alaska in 1867, the cancelled check became proof of America’s purchase (original use). That check is used now in exhibits and educational materials to teach people about U.S. history (continuing use).