Federal Records Management

Schedule Preparation - General

General Instructions

A Request for Records Disposition Authority (also known as a records schedule, or simply schedule) is required for all records not scheduled by the GRS and all records scheduled by the GRS for which the agency needs a different retention period. There are various ways in which the records schedule is used:

  • To schedule recurring records as temporary or permanent.
  • To schedule nonrecurring records as permanent. Such nonrecurring permanent records are normally excluded from the agency's published schedule.
  • To schedule nonrecurring records for disposal. Sometimes called items on a disposal list, such records are normally excluded from the agency's published schedule if they are ready for immediate disposal.
  • To convert paper records or other originals (source documents) to microform records, and then destroy the originals, if the originals are unscheduled or scheduled as permanent. No records schedule is required if the originals to be converted to microform are already scheduled for disposal.
  • To obtain media neutrality for series on schedules submitted for approval to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) prior to December 17, 2007.

Description and Added Information

Describing records properly on the records schedule makes it easier to determine their disposition. Furnishing additional information can speed NARA's approval of the records schedule. Adequate, clear, and accurate descriptions aid in implementing an approved schedule.

Importance of Describing Records Properly

It is important to describe clearly and accurately each record series or each part of an information system listed on the records schedule. This task is much easier if the agency has properly inventoried its record holdings. The following guidelines are useful in describing series or systems:

  • Describe and title a series or system by the subject or function to which it relates
  • Consider using a single schedule item to cover several closely related series if the records will have the same retention period (also, for information on creating a bucket schedule item, see Flexible Scheduling FAQs)
  • In scheduling the records in an electronic information system, describe all input records (source documents), all information recorded on electronic media, and all output records. Propose a specific retention period for each of these. Note that system documentation is covered by GRS 3.1, items 050 (permanent) and 051 (temporary). System input and outputs may also be covered by GRS 5.1 and 5.2.  If these records are covered by the GRS, the should not be listed on the schedule sent for NARA's review.
  • Elaborate on any sampling criteria and procedures for selecting files within a series for permanent retention
  • Identify reports as statistical or narrative and indicate their frequency
  • Describe correspondence files more precisely as "program subject," "reading," or the like
  • Instead of form numbers alone, use "such as" before the form number or use "forms relating to." Otherwise, changing form numbers can void disposition authorizations
  • Consider ending a long description with words such as "related records" or "equivalent forms" if appropriate, provided the preceding description is adequate.

Need for Additional Information

Besides describing each item, agency records managers should include additional information to help in the appraisal process. They should assess the value of the records, describe the functions reflected in them, indicate any duplication of content, and document the relationship between that content and information maintained elsewhere in the agency. They should also indicate if the series is a Privacy Act system of records. Above all, they should provide on, or with, the records schedule the following information about permanent records:

  • The initial date, arrangement, and total volume of each schedule item proposed as permanent.
  • In functional schedules, the current organizational location of each series and system.
  • The transfer date and annual accumulation of recurring records proposed as permanent.
  • Any access restrictions consistent with the Freedom of Information Act that are to be imposed by NARA on records proposed for immediate transfer. Such restrictions include security-classified information.

Finally, if nonrecurring records are proposed on a records schedule for immediate destruction or for immediate transfer to the National Archives, it is necessary to indicate both their volume and inclusive dates, along with any applicable NARA records center accession and box numbers.

Other Considerations in Completing a Records Schedule

In completing a records schedule, agencies should follow the general instructions on scheduling records, especially the guidance on drafting disposition instructions. In addition, they should consider record cutoffs and transfers, media neutrality, and the extent and limits of the schedule's coverage.

Importance of Instructions on Record Cutoffs and Transfers

Records schedules should include instructions for cutting off records and, if appropriate, for transferring them to agency holding areas or records centers for temporary storage and to the National Archives for archival preservation. Agencies may issue general instructions applicable to all their records with a particular retention period, incorporate specific instructions into each schedule item, or issue general instructions applicable except where unique cutoff and transfer instructions are included in individual schedule items.

  • Record cutoffs. All record series need to be cut off, or broken, before the approved disposition can be applied. In other words, the retention period normally does not start until the records have been cut off. Each agency should provide guidance to users on when to cut off records having a particular retention period. Cutoffs involve ending the old files and starting new ones at regular intervals. Series of nonrecord materials, such as technical reference files, do not need to be cut off but should be purged periodically of material no longer needed.
  • Transfers. Some noncurrent agency records are destroyed in current office space because their high reference activity or short retention periods make transfer unnecessary or inappropriate. But semicurrent records with longer retention periods and low reference activity are suitable for transfer to storage facilities for temporary storage. Still other records are scheduled for transfer to the National Archives for permanent retention, either directly from the agency or from a storage facility. The timing of the transfer to the National Archives should normally be within 30 years for paper and electronic records, and within 5-10 years for audiovisual or microform records.  For additional guidance see: Scheduling Guidance on the Appropriate Age for Legal Transfer of Permanent Records to the National Archives.

Note that if records are scheduled to be transferred before they are 15 years old, you will need to submit the following: Proposing the Early Legal Transfer of Permanent Records Checklist.

In short, records personnel need to know when and how to transfer records out of the office. The agency records manual is the place to give such instructions, both in the general introduction and, if appropriate, under specific schedule items. If it is necessary for an agency to change transfer instructions contained in an approved records schedule, a new records schedule is not required (provided that the schedule was submitted in FY 2000 or later). Instead, the agency records officer should submit a written request to the appraisal archivist assigned to the agency.

Media Neutrality

Schedules submitted after December 17, 2007, are considered media neutral unless specifically stated otherwise. Media neutrality refers to disposition instructions that apply to records in any medium, unless the schedule identifies a specific medium for the records.  Schedule items should be media neutral unless there is need to designate one particular format (e.g., an agency is legally required to maintain the document in paper format). For additional guidance on media neutrality, see: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Media Neutral Schedule Items.

Extent and Limits of a Schedule's Coverage

One records schedule can cover the program records of an entire agency or only part of it, or else it can cover the records of one or more functional areas within the agency. Thus, except for records covered appropriately by the GRS, a records schedule may include all agency records, central office records only, field office records only, or one organizational unit's records only. But an agency must schedule all of its records regardless of the number of records schedules generated.

Certain limits apply to the schedule's coverage. As already indicated, if the NARA-approved disposition authorities specify an organizational component as creator or custodian of the records, the same agency may apply such authorities to the same records after internal reorganization but only if the nature, content, and functional importance of the records remain the same.

One department or independent agency must not apply disposition authorities approved for another. If interagency reorganization reassigns functions to an existing department or agency, the gaining organization may not use the disposition authorities approved for the transferring one. Instead it needs to submit a records schedule to NARA within 1 year of the interagency reorganization. If a new department or a new independent agency assumes functions from an existing one, it has 2 years to schedule such records and all its other records by applying the GRS to eligible records and submitting a records schedule to NARA to cover the remainder.

Unless the schedule specifies otherwise, disposition authorities apply retroactively to all existing records described in the schedule. Such records include those previously acquired by transfer of function within or between agencies and then scheduled by the receiving organization, with the usual condition that the nature, content, and functional importance of the record series or system must remain the same.

Arranging a Records Schedule

Before the draft schedule has been assembled and cleared, its arrangement should already have been decided on. The schedule is usually arranged primarily by organization or function.  A schedule can cover an entire agency’s records or a single organization’s or function’s records.

Organizational Arrangement

This is a hierarchical listing arranged by name of organizational unit (by each bureau or other major unit and thereunder by its subordinate units). It shows as separate items the record series and systems maintained by each major and subordinate unit. To prevent confusion, agencies need to update schedules promptly after internal reorganization either by amending them when the changes do not affect the nature, content, and functional importance of the records or by submitting a records schedule when they do.

Functional Arrangement

A functional schedule combines series or systems serving the same purpose. Records described in the schedule items are covered regardless of where they are created and maintained. For example, many of the General Records Schedules are arranged by function. A functional approach may be suitable for a number of offices performing the same work. For permanent records, however, the organizational location should be given in the schedule for all records series and systems.

Other Arrangement Patterns

Some agencies may find it desirable to make their schedule's arrangement partly organizational and partly functional. In addition, the schedule's basic arrangement can be supplemented with other arrangement patterns, such as:

  • By Files Commonly Held Within an Agency. This is a listing of records and nonrecord materials commonly held by most or all offices. This approach avoids repeating the same items throughout the schedule. Such a schedule, entitled "Files Common to Most or All Offices", may include:
    • Nonrecord materials, such as extra copies of publications and reference copies of directives.
    • Certain temporary program records, such as general correspondence files and case files documenting program functions.
    • Office administrative files, which relate to the internal housekeeping activities of an office, such as staffing, supplies, and space, rather than the functions for which the office exists.
  • By Coordination With the Filing System. The agency may combine its comprehensive schedule with its files manual to make a single document. Retention periods are prescribed for each entry, whether it is subject-numeric, numeric only, or otherwise. A disposition-filing system arrangement requires that:
    • Case files are clearly identified and scheduled. Most agency records are case files.
    • All offices use the prescribed filing system. Those not using the system will find application of the schedule difficult, if not impossible.
    • Identical retention periods apply to small groups of records whenever possible. Otherwise, the disposition process can become too costly.

Assembling a Draft Agency Comprehensive Records Schedule

After the schedule's arrangement has been determined but before the records schedule is cleared and approved, it is often useful to combine into one draft document the components of the agency's proposed comprehensive records schedule or of the schedule being prepared for records relating to a particular function or organizational unit. These components are:

  • The records disposition authorities proposed in the records schedule, along with any records schedule authorities approved earlier that require no substantive change in their descriptions and no change in their retention periods. One-time authorities are normally excluded from this draft document and later from the published version of the agency's schedule. To these disposition authorities it is usually necessary to add cutoff instructions and, if appropriate, transfer instructions.
  • The applicable records disposition authorities already approved in the GRS, especially if they are to be dispersed item by item throughout the schedule. For GRS items, it is usually necessary to add specific retention periods, cutoff instructions and, if appropriate, instructions for transfer to an agency storage area or a records center.
  • The disposition instructions proposed for the agency's nonrecord materials.

Assembling this draft document will make it easier to issue the schedule once the agency has cleared it and obtained NARA's approval of records schedule items.

Related Resources

Back to Main Page

Back to Previous Section

Forward to Next Section