National Archives News

The Presidential Records Act

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Boxes of records and memorabilia await transport to Little Rock, AR, in January 2001 for eventual storage in the Clinton Presidential Library. (William J. Clinton Library)

Under the Presidential Records Act (PRA), incumbent Presidents have exclusive responsibility for the custody and management of the Presidential records of their administration while in office. The National Archives and Records Administration has no formal role in how incumbent Presidents manage their records, except when the President proposes to dispose of records; instead, NARA provides guidance and counsel to incumbent Presidents and their designated officials, upon request. For more information, see:

Each change of Presidential administration requires a massive move of records and materials. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) plays a key role in the physical transfer of hundreds of millions of textual, electronic, audiovisual records, and artifacts from the White House to an outgoing President’s future library. NARA also plans for the transfer of legal custody of those materials when an administration ends, the care of those materials, and the development of the library itself. Presidential records come to NARA at the end of the administration. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) applies to the Presidential Records Act (PRA) five years after the President has left office. NARA uses this time to begin to conduct archival processing and otherwise prepare for the onset of public access. (Trump Presidential records will become subject to FOIA on January 20, 2026).

Looking for information about the Federal Records Act? Find it on this page.

Presidential Records Act (PRA)

In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act (PRA), which states that any records created or received by the President as part of his constitutional, statutory, or ceremonial duties are the property of the United States government and will be managed by NARA at the end of the administration.

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) changed the legal status of Presidential and Vice Presidential materials. Under the PRA, the official records of the President and his staff are owned by the United States, not by the President.

  • The Archivist is required to take custody of these records when the President leaves office, and to maintain them in a Federal depository.
  • These records are eligible for access under FOIA  five years after the President leaves office.
  • The President may restrict access to specific kinds of information for up to 12 years after he leaves office, but then records are reviewed for FOIA exemptions only.
  • This legislation took effect on January 20, 1981, and the records of the Reagan administration were the first to be administered under this law.

Presidential records released under the FOIA can be found at the following links to the respective home pages of each NARA Presidential Library subject to the PRA/FOIA:  

Presidential Historical Materials

Only the Nixon Presidential Historical Materials are governed by the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) of 1974

Types of Presidential records

  • Textual records: includes letters, memos, schedules, briefing papers, and publications
  • Electronic records: email messages, electronic files (i.e. word processing files, spreadsheets), digital images, social media content, and digitized content
  • Audiovisual records: audio and video recordings, photographs

NARA provides courtesy storage to the incumbent administration under the provisions of the PRA. The records are in the physical custody of NARA while the White House retains legal custody. Legal custody of the Presidential records transfers to NARA at the end of a presidential administration.


OBAMA Presidential Records

(from the Obama Library website)

NARA assumed exclusive legal and physical custody of Obama Presidential records when President Barack Obama left office in 2017, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act (PRA). NARA moved approximately 30 million pages of unclassified records to a NARA facility in the Chicago area, where they are maintained exclusively by NARA. Additionally, NARA maintains the classified Obama Presidential records in a NARA facility in the Washington, DC, area. As required by the PRA, former President Obama has no control over where and how NARA stores the Presidential records of his Administration. (August 12, 2022 statement here).

Obama Presidential records became subject to FOIA requests on January 20, 2022. NARA staff are processing records in a traditional manner, with archival staff processing responsive textual records requested via FOIA from the textual record. NARA will then digitize these processed records in the same manner in which records are digitized at other Presidential Libraries as part of the FOIA review and access process. Staff are also processing born-digital materials. (The digitization and Presidential records review processes are separate and distinct.)