Presidential Records

Laws and Regulations

The Presidential Library system formally began in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and Presidential records to the Federal Government. Roosevelt's decision stemmed from a firm belief that Presidential records are an important part of our national heritage and should be accessible to the public. 

Before the advent of the Presidential Library system, Presidents or their heirs often dispersed Presidential records at the end of the administration. In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, establishing a system of privately erected and federally maintained libraries. Under this and subsequent acts, more libraries have been established. The following acts govern the Presidential Libraries and Presidential and Vice Presidential records.

Laws and Executive Orders

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In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act (PLA) which established a system of privately erected and federally maintained libraries. The PLA encouraged other Presidents to donate their historical materials to the government and ensured the preservation of Presidential papers and their availability to the American people. The Presidential Libraries Act of 1986 made significant changes to the original PLA, requiring private endowments linked to the size of the facility. NARA uses these endowments to offset a portion of the maintenance costs for the library. Read Title 44, Chapter 21 § 2112.

Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA), applies only to the Nixon Presidential Materials. It stipulates that the materials relevant to the understanding of Abuse of Governmental Power and Watergate are to be processed and released to the public prior to the release of all other materials. Read Title 44, Chapter 21 Note.

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 governs the official records of Presidents and Vice Presidents that were created or received after January 20, 1981 (i.e., beginning with the Reagan Administration). The PRA changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public, and established a new statutory structure under which Presidents, and subsequently NARA, must manage the records of their Administrations.  The PRA was amended in 2014, which established several new provisions.

Read Title 44, Chapter 22

Specifically, the PRA:

  • Establishes public ownership of all Presidential records and defines the term Presidential records.
  • Requires that Vice-Presidential records be treated in the same way as Presidential records.
  • Places the responsibility for the custody and management of incumbent Presidential records with the President.
  • Requires that the President and his staff take all practical steps to file personal records separately from Presidential records.
  • Allows the incumbent President to dispose of records that no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value, once the views of the Archivist of the United States on the proposed disposal have been obtained in writing.
  • Establishes in law that any incumbent Presidential records (whether textual or electronic) held on courtesy storage by the Archivist remain in the exclusive legal custody of the President and that any request or order for access to such records must be made to the President, not NARA.
  • Establishes that Presidential records automatically transfer into the legal custody of the Archivist as soon as the President leaves office.
  • Establishes a process by which the President may restrict and the public may obtain access to these records after the President leaves office; specifically, the PRA allows for public access to Presidential records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) beginning five years after the end of the Administration, but allows the President to invoke as many as six specific restrictions to public access for up to twelve years.
  • Codifies the process by which former and incumbent Presidents conduct reviews for executive privilege prior to public release of records by NARA (which had formerly been governed by Executive order 13489).
  • Establishes procedures for Congress, courts, and subsequent Administrations to obtain “special access” to records from NARA that remain closed to the public, following a privilege review period by the former and incumbent Presidents; the procedures governing such special access requests continue to be governed by the relevant provisions of E.O. 13489.
  • Establishes preservation requirements for official business conducted using non-official electronic messaging accounts:  any individual creating Presidential records must not use non-official electronic messaging accounts unless that individual copies an official account as the message is created or forwards a complete copy of the record to an official messaging account.  (A similar provision in the Federal Records Act applies to federal agencies.)
  • Prevents an individual who has been convicted of a crime related to the review, retention, removal, or destruction of records from being given access to any original records.
  • Places the responsibility for the custody, management and transfer of incumbent Presidential records with the President. The National Archives provides records management guidance and assistance with transferring records based on its institutional knowledge and expertise to the incumbent administration. The National Archives has no authority to enforce records management within the White House.

The Presidential Historical Records Preservation Act of 2008 authorizes the Archivist of the United States, with the recommendation of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, to make grants to eligible entities on a competitive basis to promote the historical preservation of, and public access to, historical records and documents relating to any President who does not have a presidential archival depository currently managed and maintained by the federal government pursuant to the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. 

This Act increases the amount of money that a former President’s foundation, which is responsible for constructing a Presidential library, must transfer to the government to be used for an endowment.

The Act directed the Archivist to provide to the Senate and House appropriations committees a 10-year capital improvement plan for all presidential archival depositories. In addition, the Archivist was required to submit a report to the House and Senate homeland security committees that provided alternative models for presidential archival depositories. Read the Report on Alternative Models for Presidential Libraries.

Read Title 31, Chapter 63 § 6305; Title 44, Chapter 21 § 2101, 2112, 2120Title 44, Chapter 25 §  2501, 2504

Executive Order 13489 provides for further implementation of the Presidential Records Act. This Order was signed by President Obama on January 21, 2009. It revokes Executive Order 13233.

Executive Order 13526 prescribes a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information. This Order was signed by President Obama on December 29, 2009. It revokes Executive Orders 12958 and 13292.

Enacted in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives any person the right to request  records of the executive branch of the U.S. Government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions.

The transfer of power from one administration to the next marks a significant moment in U.S. history. The Presidential Transition Acts of 1963 and 2015 give the General Services Administration (GSA) a prominent role in this process. They authorize the Administrator of GSA to provide the President-elect and the Vice-President-elect the services and facilities needed to assume their official duties.

Read more about the laws that regulate Presidential Transitions on GSA’s website.

Read more information about Presidential Transitions on our Transitions page.