The Record - May 1998

From the Archivist

Which Records Should We Keep? How The Public Can Help Decide

I have good news about a way in which we hope to increase public involvement in the work of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Archivist of the United States, John W. Carlin

One of our major responsibilities at NARA is to help government agencies determine which of their records are worth keeping and for how long. "Appraisal," we call it, by which we mean following well-established procedures to make careful judgments about how long certain records will remain valuable to the agencies that created them, to historians, and to the public in general. Appraisal decisions are embodied in "schedules" that we help agencies prepare, showing how long certain bodies of records are to be retained. Some records are disposed of within a short time. Some, on the other hand, are so valuable that we take them into the National Archives for preservation indefinitely.

We want to make it easier for the public to contribute to these decisions.

Already, we publish records "schedules" in the Federal Register to alert the public that certain records are proposed for destruction at the end of a specified time when they are presumed to be of little more use to anyone. In March of this year, we began to make those Federal Register notices more informative so that members of the public could determine more easily whether or not to agree with our judgments. Notices now contain additional descriptive information on records in each schedule. And the notices list or summarize the specific file series proposed for disposal, the total number of items in each schedule, the number of permanent items, and whether the schedule is applicable throughout an agency or only to files accumulated by a single office.

NARA publishes notices at least once a month that certain agencies are requesting records disposition authority through approval of these schedules. The notices may alert the public to proposed schedules for destroying records not previously authorized for disposal, or for reducing retention periods for records already authorized for disposal. NARA invites public comment on these schedules as part of making a final determination.

In addition, the public will have more information on which to evaluate proposals and make comments. Members of the public may now request not only copies of the schedules themselves but also copies of appraisal memorandums prepared by NARA staff members, evaluations that contain additional information concerning the nature and value of the records covered by a proposed schedule.

The impetus for this comes from NARA's Strategic Plan, which commits us to providing increased public opportunity to participate in the appraisal and scheduling process. In fact, we will be extending that opportunity far beyond the steps we have just taken to provide more information in disposition notices. If the Congress approves funds requested for NARA in President Clinton's budget for 1999, we will carry out a business process re-engineering of the ways in which we identify, appraise, schedule, and track records in collaboration with federal agencies. Our customers, users of federal records, will be consulted as part of that re-engineering.

Why go through all this? Why not keep all records?

Because every year federal agencies create billions of records on paper, film, magnetic tape, and other media. We have two million cubic feet of them already in our archival facilities and another eighteen million cubic feet in our regional records services centers. Keeping all federal records would be prohibitively expensive even if it were desirable. But it isn't desirable, because many of these records are so routine as to have obviously limited usefulness. Agency records managers prepare schedules proposing retention periods for records and submit them for NARA's approval as a legally sanctioned way to control the accumulation and sort out material of continuing value.

But no federal records are authorized for destruction without the approval of the Archivist of the United States, who grants approval only after a thorough consideration of their administrative use by the agency of origin, the rights of the Government and of private persons directly affected by the Government's activities, and the records' potential legal, historical, or other value. "Sorting out" is as important a part of NARA's service to society as "taking in." And now we are making it easier for records users in the public to contribute to making sound decisions about what to "sort out." As our Strategic Plan says, "We will develop means to include public users as well as government officials more effectively in appraisal decisions."

John W. Carlin