Federal Records Management

Resources - Publications: Disposition of Federal Records - Chapter 1

2000 Web Edition (of 1997 printed publication)

Disposition of Federal Records Table of Contents

I.   A Management Overview

I.   A Management Overview
  • An effective records disposition program is essential to successful records management, which is an integral part of information resources management.
  • A disposition program requires a strong directive.
  • Managing the records disposition program includes training employees, publicizing the program, and cultivating professional relationships.
  • Agency records officers should participate in the development of electronic and other recordkeeping systems to ensure proper planning for disposition.
  • Agency records officers need to evaluate their records disposition programs periodically.


This chapter describes how to establish and manage a records disposition program, while the following chapters explain how to implement it. An effective records disposition program is the key to successful records management, which, in turn, ensures that Government activities are documented properly, efficiently, and economically. Managing Federal records requires an understanding of their essential role in administering Government affairs and of the relationship of records management to other information resources management programs. It also entails a knowledge of recordkeeping requirements. Managing the disposition program is based on a directive establishing the program and involves an understanding of the program's nature, of promotion methods, and of evaluation techniques.

Records and Information Resources Management

Managing recorded information is an important responsibility of every Federal agency. As the basic administrative tool by which the Government does its work, records are a basic component of each agency's information resources. Like other resources, they must be managed properly for the agency to function effectively and comply with Federal laws and regulations.

According to Federal law (44 U.S.C. 2901), records management means:

the managerial activities involved with respect to records creation, records maintenance and use, and records disposition in order to achieve adequate and proper documentation of the policies and transactions of the Federal Government and effective and economical management of agency operations.

Along with data processing and telecommunications, records management is an integral part of information resources management (IRM). (See fig. 1-1.) IRM is concerned with the creation, maintenance and use, and disposition of information as well as with related resources, or assets, such as personnel, equipment, funds, and technology. In accordance with 44 U.S.C. 3504, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) works with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the General Services Administration (GSA) to promote the coordination of Federal information policy, including records management. (For more details on OMB's role in IRM, see OMB Circular No. A-130, Management of Federal Information Resources.)

Figure 1-1. IRM Components

In setting forth records management responsibilities, Federal law requires each agency head to

    make and preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and designed to furnish the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the agency's activities [44 U.S.C. 3101].

The agency head must also "establish and maintain an active, continuing program for the economical and efficient management of the records of the agency" (44 U.S.C. 3102). This means establishing continuous and systematic control over the creation, maintenance and use, and disposition of agency records in accordance with statutory and regulatory requirements. It also involves cooperating with NARA and GSA to improve records management.

Recordkeeping Requirements

Central to the proper management of recorded information is the concept of recordkeeping requirements. These requirements are statements in laws, regulations, or agency directives providing general and specific guidance on particular records to be created and maintained by an agency. Since each agency is legally obligated to create and maintain adequate and proper documentation of its organization, functions, and activities, it needs to issue recordkeeping requirements for all activities at all levels and for all media and to distinguish records from nonrecord materials and personal papers.

Agency recordkeeping requirements apply to both the creation and maintenance of records. In accordance with NARA regulations (36 CFR 1222), these requirements should prescribe the systematic creation and maintenance of all agency records.

Records Disposition and the Life Cycle of Records

Disposition is an integral part of records management and is the third and final stage of the life cycle of records. According to the life cycle concept, records go through three basic stages: (1) creation (or receipt), (2) maintenance and use, and (3) disposition. (See fig. 1-2.) Although this handbook focuses on disposition, all three stages of the records life cycle are interrelated. Thus an agency must coordinate its programs to manage records creation, maintenance and use, and disposition so that each program supports the others.

Figure 1-2. The Records Life Cycle

In Federal usage, records are referred to, depending on the stage they have reached in their life cycle, as "current," "semicurrent," or "noncurrent." These terms refer not to the date or age of the records, but rather to their use in the current daily work of the office.

As used in this handbook, disposition means those actions taken regarding Federal records after they are no longer needed in office space to conduct current agency business. These actions include:

  • Transfer of records to agency storage facilities or NARA records centers.
  • Transfer of records from one Federal agency to another.
  • Transfer of permanent records to the National Archives of the United States.
  • Disposal of temporary records no longer needed to conduct agency business, usually by destruction or occasionally by donation.

Disposition is a comprehensive term that includes destruction as well as other actions, such as the transfer of permanent records to the National Archives. After appraising agency records, NARA authorizes either their disposal or their transfer to the National Archives for preservation and research. Agencies must also receive NARA's approval before lending records outside the Federal Government, before retiring them to NARA-operated record centers, and before transferring them to other Federal agencies, unless exceptions have been granted. Finally, they must receive NARA's approval before establishing or relocating their records centers and before converting permanent or unscheduled originals to microfilm.

In contrast to disposition, "disposal" in Federal usage refers to only those final actions taken regarding temporary records after their retention periods expire. It normally means destruction of the record content, such as by recycling or burning the record medium. The term is also used occasionally to mean the transfer of temporary records from Federal control by donating them to an eligible person or organization after receiving NARA's approval.

Nature of the Records Disposition Program Definition

A records disposition program may be defined as those policies and practices designed to achieve effective and efficient disposition by scheduling all records; ensuring their proper storage, whether in agency or record center storage space; ensuring the authorized and prompt disposal of temporary records; and ensuring the timely transfer of permanent records to the National Archives.

Elements of the Program

The primary steps in managing a records disposition program are described below and summarized in figure 1-3. These steps make up the elements of the program:

  • Issue a program directive assigning authorities and responsibilities for records disposition activities in the agency, and keep that directive up to date.
  • Develop, implement, and update a comprehensive records schedule.
  • Train all those taking part in the agency's records disposition activities.
  • Publicize the program to make all agency employees aware of their records disposition responsibilities.
  • Evaluate the results of the program to ensure adequacy, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Figure 1-3. Steps in Managing a Records Disposition Program

This chapter describes the steps involving the program directive, training, publicity, and evaluation. Later chapters elaborate on developing, implementing, and updating a comprehensive records schedule and on evaluating a records disposition program.

Basic Objectives

A records disposition program provides for the effective and efficient management of records no longer needed in office space to conduct current business. It has three main objectives: The prompt disposal of temporary records whose authorized retention periods have expired, the timely and systematic transfer to economical storage of records no longer needed in office space but not yet eligible for final disposition, and the identification and transfer of permanent records to the National Archives for preservation and for reference and research use.

Most records cannot and should not be kept permanently or even for long periods. All records, regardless of media, fall into one of two categories for disposition purposes:

  1. Temporary records. These should be destroyed, or in rare instances donated, after a fixed period of time or after occurrence of a specified event. The time may range from a few months to many years. Most Federal records are temporary.
  2. Permanent records. These are sufficiently valuable for historical or other purposes to warrant continued preservation by the Federal Government. Relatively few Federal records are permanent, although the exact percentage differs from agency to agency.

In carrying out a records disposition program, each agency is responsible for recommending to NARA retention periods for potentially temporary records and suitable transfer dates for potentially permanent records. The agency also needs to determine where the records should be kept as they await disposal or transfer to the National Archives -- in the office, in an agency storage facility, or in a commercial or NARA record center.

The Program Directive and Its Contents Managerial Support

To establish an effective records disposition program, the agency head must issue a strongly worded directive making the program an integral part of the agency's records and information management program. Issuing this directive emphasizes the agency's commitment to the authorized, timely, and orderly disposition of records. It allows the agency to issue the proper delegations of authority, establish staffing patterns, and approve procedures. The sections that follow provide details about the directive and its contents.

Organizational Placement

The organizational placement of the records disposition program will influence its effectiveness. In deciding where to place the program, the agency must recognize it as an important management function and understand the need to relate it to other records and information management programs.

Program Responsibility and Objectives

The directive should designate the agency records officer as the official responsible for the program. It should permit delegation of authority to involve all parts of the agency in the program. The most important part of the directive states these program aims and duties:
  • To enable agency managers to make informed decisions.
  • To establish effective controls over all records and nonrecord materials in the agency's custody.
  • To prepare, obtain approval of, and apply an up-to-date comprehensive schedule for all agency records and nonrecord materials.
  • To participate in the development of electronic and other recordkeeping systems to ensure proper disposition.
  • To assist and advise agency officials regarding records disposition matters.
  • To act as a liaison with NARA for program direction.
  • To recruit and train the staff necessary to carry out the program.
  • To evaluate the program's results to ensure adequacy, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Staffing and Liaison

The directive should provide for an adequate network of personnel at major headquarters offices and at field offices to carry on records disposition work under the agency records officer's direction. The number of people in this liaison group depends on the size of the agency and its organizational complexity. Figure 1-4 illustrates the structure of such a system.

Smaller agencies may find that records officers must directly conduct disposition activities. In a larger agency, the complexity and volume of records often require assigning some people full-time to the disposition function.

Figure 1-4, Liaison Organization

NARA's Role

The directive should indicate NARA's role in the disposition program. It should identify NARA as the oversight agency responsible for appraising all Federal records, approving their disposition, providing program assistance and records center storage, evaluating records management programs, and serving as the final custodian of permanent records. It should also point out that NARA operates two different types of records facilities:
  • NARA records centers. These provide temporary storage and also reference service for records that are needed infrequently by the creating agency but are not yet eligible for disposal or transfer to the National Archives. Records stored in a NARA records center remain in the legal custody of the creating agency.
  • The National Archives. It stores the Federal Government's permanent records, which are also known as the National Archives of the United States. When transferring permanent records to the National Archives, agencies also transfer legal custody of the records. The National Archives takes conservation measures needed to preserve the records and also provides reference service, including service to the creating agency.

Finally, if the directive covers the entire records management program, it should also indicate the responsibilities of GSA, OMB, and other oversight agencies.

Program Promotion

In working to develop and apply a comprehensive records schedule, the agency needs to promote and evaluate the overall records disposition program. Program promotion involves training employees, publicizing the program, helping develop and monitor electronic and other recordkeeping systems, and cultivating professional relationships inside and outside the agency.


Proper training is an essential part of a records disposition program. Training should involve those agency personnel directly concerned with developing and applying schedules. These individuals include the agency records officer and staff, records liaison officers in central and field offices, and files custodians.

NARA's introductory records disposition curriculum provides a basis for internal agency training. In addition, records officers and their staffs can keep current by participating in more advanced training offered by NARA. These training opportunities are provided by NARA's Office of Records Services - Washington, DC and the Office of Regional Records Services. These and other training opportunities are described on the NARA Records Management Programs training web page.

Agencies should periodically brief supervisors and other employees on their records responsibilities, particularly those relating to records disposition. Audiovisual recordings of training and briefing sessions may also be useful, especially for remote locations or regional offices.

Publicizing the Program

Besides formal training courses and briefing sessions, other ways to publicize the records disposition program include:

Agency Newsletters. These are a valuable way of informing employees about the program.

Posters. Appropriate posters are available for display on office walls or in hallways. For electronic copies of other records management posters, see the NARA records management publications web page.

Figure 1-5. Sample Records Management Poster

Developing and Monitoring Recordkeeping Systems

Agency records officers should participate in the design and development of recordkeeping systems to ensure the proper disposition of recorded information. Such involvement is especially important in the design of electronic records systems. According to OMB Circular No. A-130, agencies are to create or collect information "only after planning for its . . . use, storage, and disposition."

The uncontrolled purchase of recordkeeping equipment can waste money and undermine the entire records disposition program. Records officers should review requests for major purchases of such equipment to ensure that the records are scheduled and the disposition instructions are being carried out promptly.

Cultivating Professional Relationships

Records officers need to develop and maintain good professional relationships both inside and outside the agency in order to advance records disposition and other aspects of records management. They should develop and maintain such relationships with:

  • Records liaison officers. An active network of such officers, both at headquarters and in the field, is essential to the success of the agency's records disposition program. As those responsible for coordinating records matters in particular offices, records liaison officers provide the agency's records officer with much of the information and support needed to develop and implement the program.
  • Agency program managers. Involving them is essential to the disposition program's success. They must be consulted to determine the value of the records to the agency and to identify other users and uses of the information. Their involvement will help ensure that records officers participate in the development of new information systems. Assisting these managers in disposition and other records management matters can open doors to cooperation. Furthermore, the records disposition program offers program managers an important service. It provides the disposition authorities required to preserve the information they need to do their jobs well and to dispose of information when it is no longer needed.
  • Designers and managers of electronic records systems. Because of the growth of such systems, records officers should give special attention to helping design and develop these systems to ensure adequate documentation and especially proper disposition of recorded information.
  • Agency historians. Records officers should assist agency historians and consult with them in the process of ensuring adequate documentation and identifying records with potentially permanent value.
  • Records managers outside the agency. Forming a network of contacts outside the agency can be useful. Attending meetings sponsored by NARA and professional societies, for example, can lead to a sharing of information and ideas about records management problems and possible solutions. For information about professional societies as well as NARA-sponsored meetings, agencies should contact NARA's Life Cycle Management Division. Information about NARA events is also available on the records management web page.
  • NARA staff members. NARA staff members are a key resource as agencies develop or improve their records disposition programs. Besides approving mandatory disposition authorities, NARA provides services such as information, training, and record center storage. It also takes legal custody of permanent records once their agency use has ended, as described in later chapters of this handbook.

Program Evaluation

Good management necessarily involves evaluating a program's results to make improvements such as shorter retention periods for temporary records, more timely disposal or transfer of eligible records, and better relations with other agency managers and NARA.

Besides reviewing its records schedule annually, each agency is required to evaluate periodically its records management programs, including records disposition, for compliance with relevant laws and regulations and for effectiveness. Likewise, in its oversight role, NARA periodically conducts single agency and interagency evaluations for the same purposes. (36 CFR 1220)

Chapter VII of this handbook contains further information on evaluating an agency's records disposition program.


An effective records disposition program is the key to successfully managing recorded information. Such a program helps ensure that agencies have the recorded information necessary to conduct Government business, avoid waste, and preserve America's documentary heritage for transfer to the National Archives. Managing this program is a challenging and rewarding responsibility, one that deserves the highest priority.

After giving an overview of identifying and scheduling records, the chapters that follow explain how to carry out a records disposition program, especially by developing and implementing a comprehensive records schedule and by evaluating the program.

Note: Web version may vary from the printed version.