Federal Records Management

Resources - Publications: Disposition of Federal Records - Chapter 2

2000 Web Edition (of 1997 printed publication)

Disposition of Federal Records - Table of Contents

II.   Records Identification and Scheduling: An Overview
II.   Records Identification and Scheduling: An Overview
  • Records must be identified and distinguished from nonrecord materials and personal papers.
  • Records are created or received and accumulated as an agency conducts Government business.
  • Records may be on paper, electronic, audiovisual, microform, or other media.
  • Scheduling is the process of developing a document that provides mandatory instructions for what to do with records (and nonrecord materials) no longer needed for current Government business.
  • The scheduling process requires an understanding of records disposition functions.
  • Basic scheduling steps include reviewing agency functions and recordkeeping requirements, inventorying and evaluating the records, and preparing disposition instructions.
  • The steps also include organizing the draft schedule, clearing it internally and externally, and then implementing the approved schedule and updating it whenever necessary.


An effective records disposition program depends, at least in part, on the systematic creation and maintenance of agency records. Records management during the creation and maintenance stages involves identifying records and establishing and meeting recordkeeping requirements. (See Chapter I.) It should be based on the recognition that records are important because they:

  • Protect the legal, financial, and other rights of the Government and its citizens.
  • Ensure continuity and consistency in administration.
  • Assist agency officials and their successors in making informed policy and program judgments.
  • Provide information required by the Congress and others to oversee the agency's activities.
  • Document the agency's organization, structure, and achievements.

This chapter gives an overview of the process of identifying records and scheduling them for appropriate disposition. Identifying records means distinguishing them from nonrecord materials and personal papers. It initially involves inventorying the records. (See Chapter III.)

Scheduling records is the process of developing a document that provides mandatory instructions for what to do with records (and nonrecord materials) no longer needed for current Government business. This document is a records schedule. It is sometimes called a records disposition schedule, a records control schedule, a records retention schedule, or simply a schedule. In NARA's usage the term includes the SF 115, Request for Records Disposition Authority; the General Records Schedules (GRS); and the agency records schedule. The agency schedule should be a comprehensive schedule that also contains agency disposition instructions for nonrecord materials.

NARA's regulations (36 CFR 1228) require each agency to develop a comprehensive records schedule within 2 years of the agency's establishment and to schedule the records of a new program within 1 year of its implementation. Each agency also needs to review its comprehensive records schedule annually and to revise and update it as necessary. Finally, whenever NARA issues a change to the GRS, the agency has 6 months to update its schedule accordingly unless it has received an exception from NARA.

Records, Nonrecord Materials, and Personal Papers

Federal records need to be distinguished from nonrecord materials and personal papers for disposition purposes. Nonrecord materials require only agency approval for disposition, and the individual owner determines the disposition of personal papers. In contrast, the disposition of Federal records is authorized only when an agency has received NARA's approval.


What are Federal records? As defined in 44 U.S.C. 3301, the term includes:

all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine-readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the United States Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government or because of the informational value of data in them.

This legal definition contains several important terms and phrases that require further explanation:

  • "Documentary materials" is a collective term that refers to all media on which information is recorded, regardless of the nature of the medium or the method or circumstances of recording. The term usually refers to records and nonrecord materials, but it may also include personal papers as defined later in this chapter.
  • "Regardless of physical form or characteristics" means that the medium may be paper, film, disk, or another physical type or form. It also means that the method of recording may be manual, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or any combination of these or other technologies.
  • "Made" means the act of creating and recording information by agency employees, regardless of the method or medium involved. Such recorded information is generally circulated to others or placed in files accessible to others.
  • "Received" means the acceptance or collection of documentary materials by agency employees:
    • Regardless of who originated the materials, whether employees within the agency or in other agencies or whether private citizens, public officials, contractors, Government grantees, or others.
    • Regardless of how the materials were transmitted, whether directly by the originator or indirectly by messenger, mail, electronic means, or some other method.
    In this context the term "received" does not refer to misdirected materials. It may or may not refer to loaned or seized materials. The question of Government ownership of loaned or seized materials depends on the conditions of agency custody and use and should therefore be referred to legal counsel for advice.
    • "Preserved" means the filing, storing, or any other method of systematically maintaining documentary materials by the agency, even if those materials have not yet been filed or have been removed temporarily from existing filing systems.
    • "Appropriate for preservation" means suitable for filing, storage, or other systematic maintenance by the agency, regardless of any inadequacies in the agency's formal recordkeeping policies and practices.

    Documentary materials are records when they meet both of the following conditions: (1) They are made or received by an agency of the U.S. Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of agency business; and (2) they are preserved or are appropriate for preservation as evidence of the agency's organization, functions, and activities or because of the value of the information in them.

    In summary, the legal definition has three key points:

    1. Records are made or received by a Federal agency either to comply with a law or to conduct public business. As a result, they belong to the Government rather than to individuals, and their legal disposition depends on the prior approval of the Archivist of the United States.
    2. Records are, or should be, preserved because they constitute evidence or contain information of value. They document an agency's organization, functions, and activities or the persons, places, things, or matters dealt with by an agency.
    3. Records vary widely in their physical form or characteristics. They may be on paper, electronic, audiovisual, microform, or other media.

    Special attention must be given to electronic records throughout their life cycle. These are records stored in a form that only a computer can process. Their storage media include floppy diskettes, data cartridges, magnetic tapes and disks, and optical disks. These media may change frequently because of rapidly expanding technologies. Electronic records are increasingly supplementing and sometimes replacing paper records. Furthermore, they are found not only in program offices but also in automatic data processing (ADP) centers.

    It is essential to design electronic records systems so that adequate maintenance and disposition procedures are in place from the start. An effective records disposition program depends on scheduling all records, regardless of location and regardless of physical form or characteristics, including electronic records.

    Attention should also be given to working files, or working papers, because of the difficulty of determining record status. Normally case working files are records because they generally need to be organized and maintained for some specified period of time. Other likely record categories include working files used in preparing reports or studies and preliminary drafts of policy documents circulated for comment. In contrast, preliminary drafts of correspondence not circulated for comment are more likely to be nonrecord materials.

    Nonrecord Materials

    An agency's disposition program also needs to include managing nonrecord materials, because their volume may exceed that of records. These are US Government-owned documentary materials excluded from the legal definition of records (44 U.S.C. 3301), either by failing to meet the general conditions of record status already described or by falling under one of three specific categories:

    1. Extra copies of documents preserved only for convenience of reference.

    2. Stocks of publications and of processed documents. Each agency needs, however, to create and maintain record sets of processed documents and of publications, including annual and special reports, special studies, brochures, pamphlets, books, handbooks, manuals, posters, and maps.

    3. Library and museum material made or acquired and preserved solely for reference or exhibition purposes.

    On the basis of these conditions and the categories specifically cited in the law, nonrecord materials include:

    • Information copies of correspondence, directives, forms, and other documents on which no administrative action is recorded or taken.

    • Routing slips and transmittal sheets adding no information to that contained in the transmitted material.

    • Tickler, follow up, or suspense copies of correspondence, provided they are extra copies of the originals.

    • Duplicate copies of documents maintained in the same file.

    • Extra copies of printed or processed materials for which complete record sets exist, such as current and superseded manuals maintained outside the office responsible for maintaining the record set.

    • Catalogs, trade journals, and other publications that are received from other Government agencies, commercial firms, or private institutions and that require no action and are not part of a case on which action is taken.

    • Physical exhibits, artifacts, and other material objects lacking evidential value.

    Determining whether a particular document is a record does not depend on whether it is an original or a copy. As figure 2-1 shows, several copies of a single form may each have record status because each serves a separate administrative purpose, and they are maintained in different filing systems. A single set of publications should be designated the record copy, as distinguished from copies elsewhere or stocks of the same publication.

    Figure 2-1. Multiple Record Copies of a Single Form

    The following guidelines should be used in managing nonrecord materials:

    • Within the agency, only the records officer should determine record or nonrecord status, after obtaining any necessary advice from the agency's legal counsel. Giving such responsibility to officials at agency staff or operating levels may lead to misuse of the nonrecord label, weaken the entire disposition program, and result in the loss of valuable records.

    • The records officer should seek NARA's guidance regarding the record or nonrecord status of a questionable file or type of document.

    • When it is difficult to decide whether certain files are records or nonrecord materials, the records officer should treat them as records.

    • Nonrecord materials should not be interfiled with records.

    • Nonrecord materials should be destroyed when no longer needed for reference. NARA's approval is not required to destroy such materials.

    • Nonrecord materials should be removed from US Government custody only with the agency's approval. The agency should ensure adequate protection of any security-classified or administratively controlled information contained in such materials.

    Personal Papers

    Some Government employees, especially executives, senior staff, scientists, and other specialists, accumulate and keep various personal papers at the office. The maintenance of personal papers in agency space and equipment requires agency approval and also compliance with Federal and agency requirements. If kept there, such personal papers must be clearly designated as such and maintained separately from records.

    Personal papers are documentary materials belonging to an individual that are not used to conduct agency business. They relate solely to an individual's personal and private affairs or are used exclusively for that individual's convenience. They may refer to or comment on the subject matter of agency business, provided they are not used to conduct that business. In contrast to both records and nonrecord materials, personal papers are not Government-owned. Certain documentary materials are clearly personal and may readily be identified and claimed as such. Categories of personal papers include:

    • Materials accumulated by an individual before joining Government service that are not later used to conduct Government business. Examples include previous work files, political materials, and reference files.

    • Materials brought into or accumulated in the office that are not used to conduct agency business and that relate solely to an individual's family matters, outside business pursuits, professional activities, or private political associations. Examples include family and personal correspondence, volunteer and community service records, literature from professional organizations, and manuscripts and drafts of articles and books.

    • Work-related materials, such as diaries, journals, notes, personal calendars, and appointment schedules, that are not prepared, received, or used in the process of transacting agency business. Although these materials contain work-related information, they are personal papers if they are claimed as such and serve only the individual's own purpose (e.g., as reminders and personal observations about work-related and other topics). This category is the most difficult to distinguish from agency records because of its work-related content.

    Employees should keep in mind that some materials appearing to be personal papers could prove to be agency records. Determining their record status depends on all the circumstances of their creation, maintenance and use, and disposition.

    In determining whether or not certain documentary materials are records, the Federal courts have developed guidance, subject to change, in deciding Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) cases. Based on current case law involving executive agencies, the meaning of "agency records" for FOIA purposes is broader than that of "records" under 44 U.S.C. 3301 with respect to such agencies. Therefore, documentary materials falling outside the FOIA usage would also fall outside the statutory definition of "records" for those agencies. The following topics include relevant questions and guidance regarding the record status of work-related documentary materials:

    • Creation. Was the document created or received by an agency employee on agency time, with agency materials, and at agency expense? If not, then the document is unlikely to be an agency record. If so, it may or may not be an agency record, depending on other considerations.

    • Content. Does the document contain only substantive information about agency business, or does it contain only information about the employee's personal matters? Does it contain both official and personal information? If the document does not contain official information, then it is unlikely to be an agency record. If it does, then its potential record status depends on additional considerations.

    • Purpose. Was the document created to facilitate agency business? If so, then it may be an agency record, depending on its distribution and use by other agency employees. Or was it created solely for the employee's personal convenience? If so, it is unlikely to be an agency record.

    • Distribution. Was the document distributed to other employees for an official purpose? If so, it may be an agency record.

    • Use. Did this employee or others actually use the document to conduct agency business? Materials brought into the agency for reference use do not become agency records merely because they relate to official matters or influence the employee's work. However, if the employee relies on such materials to conduct agency business or if other employees use them for agency purposes, then the materials are more likely to be agency records.

    • Maintenance. Was the document placed in agency files, or was it kept in the employee's possession? If placed in agency files, it is likely to be an agency record. If not, then its possible record status depends on other considerations.

    • Disposition. Does a NARA-approved records schedule govern the document's disposition? If so, the document is a Federal record and is also likely to be an agency record for FOIA purposes. Or is the employee free to destroy or remove the document solely on the basis of individual discretion? If so, the document is unlikely to be an agency record.

    • Control. Has the agency attempted to exercise "institutional control" over the document through applicable maintenance or disposition directives? Did it do so by requiring the document to be created in the first place? If so, the document is most likely an agency record.

    • Segregation. Can substantive agency information in the document be segregated from any personal information? If so, the official portion should be extracted and placed in agency files.

    In short, mere location in the agency does not mean that the materials are records, nor is use alone conclusive in determining record status. Materials generally assume record status, however, when the agency asserts control by requiring their creation or retention. Furthermore, documents created within an agency cannot be regarded as personal merely because the employee is free to dispose of them. Depending on other considerations, they may be records or nonrecord materials and therefore subject to agency control.

    Government employees also tend to accumulate extra copies of documents, particularly those they have drafted, reviewed, or otherwise acted on. They may retain and remove these copies, with agency approval, if such actions do not impose an administrative or financial burden or violate the confidentiality required by national security, privacy, and other interests protected by law.

    If departing officials want copies of agency records that are classified or otherwise restricted, they should seek the advice of the agency's information security manager and legal counsel. The agency, not the individual, is responsible for arranging the transfer of such nonrecord materials to an approved depository.

    Title 18 U.S.C. 798 provides fines and imprisonment for the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, and Executive Order 12958 ( and the Amendment to E.O. 12958) restricts access to such information. Only the originating agency may waive access restrictions and then only when essential for authorized and lawful Government purposes. It may do so for historical researchers and former Presidential appointees. Even in those instances the agency must certify in writing that such access is consistent with national security. It must also ensure that the information is properly safeguarded and limit access to documents essential to the historical research project or documents that the former Presidential appointee originated, reviewed, signed, or received while in office.

    Each agency needs to establish procedures to prevent departing employees from destroying records or removing records from the agency's custody. Such procedures include notifying employees of their legal responsibilities and reviewing any documentary materials that employees wish to take with them. Special attention should be given to reviewing any documentary materials maintained by the agency head or other high officials during their tenure. If preventive measures fail, the agency must inform NARA of any instances of unauthorized disposition, including unauthorized removal. (See Chapter VI for details.)

    Even though documentary materials may have designations such as "personal," "confidential," or "private," they are records if they are created or received by the agency to conduct Government business and if they are preserved or appropriate for preservation because they document the agency's organization, functions, and activities or contain information on the persons, places, things, or matters dealt with by the agency.

    Government employees should be careful not to mix personal papers with Federal records. Although personal papers may be destroyed or removed at the owner's discretion, it is illegal to destroy or remove records without proper authorization (18 U.S.C. 2071).

    Carefully considering the preceding guidance should aid the agency's legal counsel, records officer, or other designated official in determining whether particular documents are records, nonrecord materials, or personal papers. Further guidance appears in the NARA publication Documenting Your Public Service as well as in NARA's regulations (36 CFR 1222). Assistance is available from NARA appraisal archivists.

    Records Disposition Functions

    In scheduling records, an agency should understand what records disposition functions must be carried out. These functions include inventorying, developing a comprehensive records schedule, cutting off records, transferring eligible records to Federal records centers and agency holding areas, disposing of temporary records when their retention periods expire, and transferring permanent records to the National Archives.


    Inventorying involves distinguishing records from nonrecord materials and personal papers and gathering information about the records themselves. Although treated separately in this handbook, inventorying is also one of the steps to follow in scheduling records.

    Development of a Comprehensive Records Schedule

    A comprehensive schedule is the heart of a records disposition program. Based on careful analysis of the agency's documentary materials, it provides mandatory instructions for the retention and disposition of each record series or system and of nonrecord materials. It authorizes the systematic removal from offices of unneeded records even as new ones are being created. The schedule's quality is essential to the success of the entire program.

    To develop this comprehensive schedule, the agency combines its own disposition authorities for nonrecord materials with NARA-approved records disposition authorities. The specific steps to follow in developing a schedule are described later in this chapter. It is important to understand that although all agency records must be scheduled ultimately, they need not be scheduled all at once.

    Record Cutoffs

    Records in a series or system should be cut off, or broken, at regular intervals, usually annually, to permit their disposal or transfer in complete blocks and, for correspondence files, to permit the establishment of new files. Normally correspondence files are cut off at the end of each year (fiscal or calendar), documents are no longer added to that year's files, and new file folders are set up for the next year's files. Unless high volume makes more frequent cutoffs necessary, case files normally are cut off at the end of the year (fiscal or calendar) in which final action is taken.

    Cutoffs are needed before disposition instructions can be applied because retention periods usually begin with the cutoff, not with the creation or receipt, of the records. An agency should also cut off unscheduled records to make their disposition possible once they have been scheduled and authority has been received from NARA. Nonrecord materials do not normally require cutoffs but should be purged periodically, at least annually. (See fig. 2-2 for a poster on cutting off records.)

    Figure 2-2. Poster on Cutting Off Your Records

    Transfers to NARA Records Centers and Agency Storage Facilities

    Records centers, operated by NARA, store and service agency records no longer needed in office space but requiring continued retention until a later disposal date or scheduled transfer to the National Archives. Agencies may maintain their own records holding areas for temporary records no longer needed in office space but whose volume or retention periods are insufficient to warrant transfer to a record center. Instead of storing permanent records in such holding areas, agencies should establish separate holding areas to protect them during any necessary period between their cutoff and their transfer to a record center or the National Archives. Agencies may also operate their own records centers, provided they comply with NARA's regulations (36 CFR 1228). More guidance on transferring records to NARA records centers is contained in these regulations and in the publications and training offered by the federal records centers.

    Disposal of Temporary Records

    Temporary records are those determined by NARA to be disposable, or nonpermanent. NARA approves such records for destruction or occasionally for donation to an eligible person or organization. Many temporary records are eligible for destruction when no longer needed in an office to conduct current business. Others are eligible only later, after storage in an agency holding area or a records center. Temporary records should normally be disposed of promptly in accordance with a NARA-approved records schedule.

    Although NARA-approved retention periods for temporary records are normally mandatory, exceptions can and should be made. In rare instances, one particular file may have permanent value obviously lacking in the other records found in a series or system scheduled as temporary. For example, if a particular case attracts congressional and national media attention, it may well deserve special consideration even if it is part of a series scheduled for disposal. If such a case comes to the agency's attention, the records officer should consult with the NARA appraisal archivist before formally requesting NARA approval of a new disposition for the particular file that appears to warrant permanent retention.

    Transfer of Permanent Records to the National Archives

    Transferring permanent records to the National Archives' legal and physical custody will relieve the agency of having to provide special care for such valuable records. This transfer should take place when the agency no longer needs the records for the conduct of current business, whether or not the records are stored in agency or other records storage facilities. The schedule should specify when the records are to be transferred.

    Each agency needs to ensure the timely transfer of its permanent records to the National Archives. The National Archives stores permanent records of primarily national interest at its facilities in the Washington, DC, area and those of primarily regional and local interest at its regional archives located in major metropolitan areas throughout the country. Legal control of the records passes to NARA when the NARA official signs the required legal document acknowledging receipt of the records. After the appropriate agency official has signed this document indicating the records are ready for immediate transfer to the National Archives, the agency should be careful not to dispose of the records or withdraw them from a NARA records center.

    At its facilities in the Washington, DC, area, the National Archives maintains accessioned permanent records created by agencies in that metropolitan area. It maintains all other accessioned permanent records at its regional archives located in 12 other metropolitan areas throughout the country.

    Basic Steps in Scheduling Records

    Before going into detail, it is useful to gain an overview of all the steps needed to schedule records. These steps are based on the assumption that the agency has already issued a directive establishing its records disposition program. As summarized in figure 2-3, the basic scheduling steps are as follows:

    Figure 2-3. Basic Scheduling Steps

    1. Review Functions and Recordkeeping Requirements
      Review the functions and recordkeeping requirements and practices of the agency and of the particular offices whose records are being scheduled. Examine pertinent documents, such as laws, regulations, organization charts, and functional statements. Also consult with program managers, ADP managers, and records personnel. (See Chapter III.)

    2. Inventory
      Inventory series and systems of agency files, including both records and nonrecord materials. Usually at this stage the agency makes a preliminary decision as to whether the schedule will be arranged by organization, function, or a combination of these. (See Chapter III.)

    3. Evaluate
      Evaluate for disposition the records contained in each series or system by determining their uses and analyzing their values. The result of this evaluation process is to recommend the records as permanent or temporary and to propose specific retention periods for them. (See Chapter IV.)

    4. Draft Instructions
      Draft recommended file cutoffs, retention periods, and other disposition instructions for all records, along with necessary instructions for all nonrecord materials. (See Chapter IV.) During this process, take these actions:

      • Use the General Records Schedules (GRS) for all applicable records.
      • Complete a Standard Form 115, Request for Records Disposition Authority, for all records not scheduled by the GRS.
      • Write appropriate disposition instructions for nonrecord materials.

    5. Organize and Clear Internally
      By this stage, the agency should have determined the schedule's arrangement. Based on that arrangement, assemble the draft schedule, and clear it within the agency. (See Chapter V.)

    6. Obtain Approval
      Obtain any necessary approval from NARA and the General Accounting Office (GAO). No external approval is required for the disposition of nonrecord materials. External approval has already been granted for records covered by the GRS. (See Chapter V.)

    7. Implement
      Implement the completed and approved schedule by issuing it as a mandatory agency directive, training employees in its use, and applying it to agency records. (See Chapter VI.)

    8. Review and Update
      Review the schedule at least annually, and by following the above steps, update it to cover new series and systems or to revise the dispositions of current series and systems. This step results from careful monitoring of the schedule's implementation as well as from constant awareness of new and revised recordkeeping requirements and practices. (See Chapter VI.)


    This chapter has provided an overview of identifying records and scheduling them for appropriate disposition. It has emphasized the need to distinguish records from nonrecord materials and personal papers for disposition purposes. It has also described the major records disposition functions and the basic steps in scheduling records.

    Later chapters of this handbook explain in some detail how to carry out these scheduling steps. At the outset, however, it should be emphasized that although an agency needs to schedule all its records ultimately, it does not need to schedule them all at the same time. Instead it may schedule them one office or one function at a time until all its records are covered. Furthermore, throughout the scheduling process, the records officer or staff member should keep in contact with the NARA appraisal archivist assigned liaison responsibility for the agency.

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