Prologue Magazine

NARA’s Role under the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act

Summer 2017, Vol. 49, No. 2

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was founded to ensure that the permanent records of the federal government are preserved and made accessible to the public now and far into the future. To fulfill this mission, we work with the records creators before the records even come into our custody.

Today, two laws govern records created by the U.S. Government: the Federal Records Act (FRA) and the Presidential Records Act (PRA).

The Federal Records Act was enacted in 1950 and amended most recently in November 2014. The FRA gave the National Archives (then under the General Services Administration) responsibility to oversee recordkeeping in federal agencies in the executive branch. The FRA also gives NARA oversight authority over “federal agencies” in the judicial and legislative branches of government, although it does not apply to the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Architect of the Capitol.

The FRA gives NARA a direct, formal role in agencies’ records management: We advise agencies on appropriate recordkeeping practices, appraise their records, approve records disposition schedules, have inspection and oversight authority, and can even resolve whether a document is a federal record. NARA helps agencies determine how long they must keep temporary records before they can be destroyed, and which they must eventually turn over to NARA for permanent preservation—less than 5 percent of the mountain of documents created by agencies every year comes to the Archives.

The FRA does not cover records created by U.S. Presidents, which, until 1978, were still considered their personal property. This changed when President Franklin Roosevelt started the tradition of donating presidential papers to the National Archives when he founded the first presidential library in 1940

The Watergate scandal of 1972–1974 prompted another change. After resigning from office, President Richard Nixon wanted to destroy the White House tapes. Congress, backed up by the Supreme Court, passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act in 1974 to seize the Nixon tapes and papers and place them in the National Archives.

Four years later, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act of 1978 (also amended in 2014), which established government ownership of presidential records, starting with the next President to take office (Ronald Reagan).

Under the PRA, NARA does not have direct oversight authority over the White House records program, as it does over federal agencies under the FRA. Because the Archivist reports to the President, NARA provides advice and assistance to the White House on records management practices upon request. While only a small percentage of agency records are permanent, all presidential records are considered permanent, unless the President obtains the written views of the Archivist to dispose of particular records—e.g., public mail and routine administrative files.

Immediately after the President leaves office, the National Archives takes legal and physical custody of the outgoing administration’s records and begins to work with the incoming White House staff to provide advice on appropriate records management.

Both the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act govern the management of records created by the executive branch, but the FRA gives NARA greater oversight authority than it has for Presidential records. That difference in the level of authority is dictated by the constitutional structure governing the three branches of our government.

NARA is privileged to work with the Presidents and agencies to ensure that the permanent records of our government are properly managed, preserved, and ultimately made available for research by the American people.

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Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.