Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Records Scheduling & Appraisal
September 23, 2020 (updated December 2020)
QUESTIONS ABOUT RECORDS SCHEDULES
1. What are Federal records?
The legal definition of a Federal record can be found at 44 U.S.C. 3301. For practical purposes, Federal records are recorded information regardless of format, created or received in the process of conducting Government activities. Huge quantities of records, primarily electronic, are created every day.
2. How long are Federal records kept?
It depends! Most records are valuable only in the short term to support particular tasks, such as ordering supplies. However, other records are needed much longer to protect individual rights, support Government accountability, and make information available about the Government’s past actions to support better decision making.
A very small percentage of records are designated as historically valuable records. These records help document the history of the United States. Only these permanently valuable records are sent to the National Archives to be kept forever. Estimates put this around 3 percent of records created.
3. Why are records destroyed?
The Federal Records Act requires agencies to provide for the economical and efficient management of records. This includes ensuring the disposal of records with only temporary value. There are three benefits to disposal:
- Security—unneeded confidential information, often about individuals, is destroyed so it cannot be shared, made public, or sold to third parties.
- Storage space—reducing the amount of information being stored either physically or digitally reduces storage costs.
- Searchability—disposing of information that is no longer needed makes it easier to find relevant information.
4. How do we decide how long records need to be kept?
The Federal Records Act requires agencies to follow a process to identify all the records they have, how long each type of record is valuable, and request authority to either legally destroy the records or transfer them to the National Archives when there is no longer a need for them at the creating agency.
This process is called records scheduling, and it is managed by the National Archives and Records Administration.
5. Who approves records schedules?
The Archivist of the United States, the head of the National Archives and Records Administration, must approve all records schedules before they can be used to either destroy records or transfer records to the National Archives. The Archivist relies on the advice of appraisal archivists on the National Archives staff and requests public comment on any schedules that request permission to destroy records.
6. What is a records schedule?
A "records schedule" identifies records created or maintained by a Federal agency. It describes:
- Whether the records may be destroyed and how long they must be kept prior to destruction; or
- Whether the records are to be transferred to the National Archives for permanent preservation and when that transfer is supposed to occur.
Records schedules may apply to existing records as well as those created in the future.
7. Where can the public find approved records schedules?
You can look up approved agency records schedules on the Records Control Schedules web page. For additional information also see the Records Controls Schedules (RCS) Frequently Asked Questions. Agencies may reschedule or reorganize records schedules over time, so some older items or schedules may be superseded. Marking superseded schedules is an ongoing process, but schedules will be marked inactive when all items on the schedule have been superseded.
8. Who creates records schedules?
It depends on whether the schedule is specific to a single agency or used by many agencies.
In the case of records that are common to most agencies, the National Archives encourages everyone to handle them the same way by using NARA-created General Records Schedules (GRS). You can find them on the General Records Schedules web page.
For records specific to each agency, the creating agency drafts the records schedule which is approved by NARA. You can find these on the Records Control Schedules web page.
9. Why is records scheduling necessary?
- Shows what records an agency holds;
- Helps agencies respond to requests from the public for records under the Freedom of Information Act and courts for discovery orders;
- Identifies high-value, permanent records so agencies can transfer them to the National Archives; and
- Saves taxpayer money in storing records that aren’t needed, and minimizing the risk that unneeded records with privacy or other protected information will be accidentally released.
10. What happens if there isn’t a records schedule, or the schedule isn’t followed?
Records cannot be legally destroyed without an approved records schedule. Unscheduled records must be treated as permanent records by agencies until they are scheduled. Federal records that are destroyed without a records schedule or not in accordance with the instructions in the schedule are unlawful and referred to by NARA as “unauthorized disposals.”
You can learn more about this on NARA’s Unauthorized Disposition web page.
11. What does disposition mean?
"Disposition" refers to the final fate of Federal records that are no longer needed for current business. A disposition of permanent means records will be transferred to the National Archives. A disposition of temporary means that the records will eventually be destroyed.
12. What is a temporary record?
Temporary records do not have sufficient archival value to warrant permanent preservation by the National Archives, with all the work and expense that this entails. This does not mean that the records have no value, but only that they do not meet the criteria for archival records. In fact, some temporary records need to be kept for a very long time, but if they don’t need to be kept forever, they are still considered temporary.
13. What is a permanent record?
Permanent records have sufficient archival value to warrant their permanent preservation by the National Archives. Such records may be kept because they document an agency's origins, organization, functions, and significant transactions and activities. Or they may be kept because they document the persons, places, things, or matters dealt with by an agency.
14. What is archival value?
Archival value means the records merit permanent preservation by the National Archives due to their historical or other value. The National Archives assesses archival value using our Appraisal Policy, which focuses on records as essential evidence documenting the rights of American citizens; actions of Federal officials; and the national experience. The National Archives further refines the concept of archival value to be those records that:
- Retain their importance for documenting legal status, rights and obligations of individuals, groups, organizations, and governmental bodies despite the passage of time (Note that not all records that document legal status, rights and obligations need to be kept forever. Some are kept just long enough to protect the rights and interests of those involved.);
- Provide evidence of significant policy formulation and business processes of the Federal Government;
- Provide evidence of our Government's conduct of foreign relations and national defense;
- Provide evidence of Federal deliberations, decisions, and actions relating to major social, economic, and environmental issues;
- Provide evidence of the significant effects of Federal programs and actions on individuals, communities, and the natural and man-made environment; and
- Contribute substantially to knowledge and understanding of the people and communities of our nation.
15. What is a disposition instruction?
A disposition instruction consists of:
- Identification of the records as either temporary or permanent; or
- How long the records need to be retained by the agency before destroying them or transferring them to the Archives, known as the retention period.
16. What is NARA’s responsibility for records scheduling?
Although agencies recommend records dispositions and retention periods, only NARA can approve final disposition. In carrying out this responsibility, NARA:
- Works with agencies to ensure that retention periods of temporary records are adequate, but not excessive, for agency needs and for the protection of individual rights;
- Makes sure that disposition instructions meet the requirements of other agencies having an interest in certain categories of records; for example, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in civilian personnel records and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in program and financial records; and
- Cooperates with agencies to identify and schedule records having permanent value.
QUESTIONS ABOUT RECORDS APPRAISAL
17. What is records appraisal and why does NARA appraise records?
Records appraisal is the process of determining the value of records. The National Archives maintains Federal records that have sufficient historical or other value warranting their continued preservation. The purpose of records appraisal is to identify records created and maintained by Federal agencies that have sufficient historical or other value to warrant continued preservation and to approve those records that do not for eventual destruction.
18. Which records are kept as the National Archives?
The purpose of an archives is to preserve, protect, and make available records of historical value. Using our appraisal policy, NARA selects records based on their evidential and information value in documenting:
- The rights of citizens over time;
- Significant policy formulation and business processes;
- Foreign relations and national defense;
- Deliberations, decisions, and actions relating to major social, economic, and environmental issues;
- Significant effects of programs and actions on individuals, communities, and the environment; and
- Knowledge and understanding of the people and communities of our nation.
19. Why doesn’t NARA keep all Federal records since most are electronic?
It is not effective to maintain and provide access to all records ever created by the Federal Government. In 2018, NARA held over 5 million cubic feet (equivalent to 12.5 billion pages) of records in traditional (analog) formats and 795 terabytes of electronic records. The overwhelming majority of Government information has limited evidential and informational value.
Although storage for electronic records may be cheaper than for paper, electronic records are more fragile and require considerable effort to maintain over time. Many factors increase the resources required to maintain electronic records:
- Preservation—records must be periodically reviewed to ensure they are still accessible
- Format migration—records may need to be migrated to newer formats to ensure continued access
- Searchability—the more records there are, the harder it is to find relevant information
20. Can the public influence records scheduling and appraisal decisions?
Yes, the public has the opportunity to comment on records schedules and appraisal decisions. Public comments contribute to better appraisal decisions by bringing additional perspectives on the value of records. Notices of records proposed for eventual destruction, regardless of how long the records will be retained, are published in the Federal Register along with an invitation to comment. Notices are available at regulations.gov. Instructions to sign up for alerts when NARA publishes a Federal Register Notice of Records Schedules are here.
21. What does NARA do with public comments on records schedules?
We consider all comments we receive from the public by the posted deadline. We consult as needed with the Federal agency seeking the disposition authority. After considering comments, we will post on regulations.gov a “Consolidated Reply” summarizing the comments, responding to them, and noting any changes we have made to the proposed records schedule.
22. I have an unanswered question about records scheduling. Where can I go for help?
Select from the contacts on our Records Management Contacts web page.