Federal Records Management

Related Disposition Matters


In implementing and updating a comprehensive records schedule, each agency should be aware of related disposition matters. These include screening files, superseding a disposition authority, transferring records to other agencies, temporarily extending retention periods, having disposal authority withdrawn, and destroying records in an emergency. Above all, they involve monitoring schedule implementation to prevent the unauthorized disposition of Federal records.

The Screening Process

In records disposition, screening means examining files to identify and remove documents of short-term value, particularly when they are mixed with long-term temporary or permanent records. Decisions to screen, or weed, paper-based files require rigorous analysis because of the cost involved. The amount of time and money spent depends on whether or not:

  • Complete folders, or at least sections of folders, can be removed
  • It is easy to identify the materials to be removed
  • The records are easily accessible
  • Physical processing, such as removal of paper clips or fasteners, is unnecessary.

Screening is no substitute for following proper filing procedures, and it should be unnecessary if such procedures are in effect. It is normally cost-effective only if the records to be retained are permanent, are scheduled for periods exceeding 30 years, or constitute less than half of the file. Alternatives to screening paper-based files include retaining them in the office until final disposition, moving them to an agency holding area, or retiring them intact to a records center. The best way to avoid screening problems is to make sure that permanent or long-term records are not filed with short-term records or with nonrecord materials.

Supersession of Disposition Authority

If two disposition authorities cover the same record series or system, the more recent authority applies, even though it may require longer retention. New or revised General Records Schedules (GRS) items supersede National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)-approved records schedule items unless the agency obtains the National Archive's approval of an exception to the GRS standard.

Transfers of Records to Other Agencies

In accordance with National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regulations (36 CFR 1231), agencies must obtain NARA's written approval before transferring records to another executive agency. NARA's approval is unnecessary when the transfer is required by statute, Executive order, Presidential reorganization plan, or treaty or when the records are transferred to records centers or the National Archives. It is also unnecessary when the records are lent for official use or when the transfer is between two parts of the same Executive department. The agency's letter requesting such approval should include the following information:

  • A concise description of the records, including inclusive dates and the volume in cubic feet
  • Any access restrictions, including those placed on classified information
  • The agencies and persons using the records and the purpose of this use
  • The current and proposed physical and organizational locations of the records
  • Justification of the proposed transfer, including an explanation as to why it is in the best interests of the Federal Government.

Along with the letter, the agency should send copies of concurrences by the other agencies concerned.

If agencies wish to transfer records to recipients other than Federal agencies, they should follow NARA regulations for donating records, which are discussed earlier in this chapter. If permanent or unscheduled records are proposed for loan to non-Federal recipients, NARA's prior approval is required.

Temporary Extension of Retention Periods

Program audits, litigation, investigations, or other special circumstances may require the retention of record series or systems beyond their scheduled destruction date. According to NARA regulations (36 CFR 1226.18-20), an agency may request approval of a temporary extension by sending NARA a letter. The letter should contain a concise description of the records and a complete citation of the schedule items governing the disposition of the records. It should also contain the estimated length of the extension and the current and proposed physical location of the records, including specific records centers.

If NARA approves a temporary extension for records of one agency, it will notify that agency by letter. If it approves such an extension for records common to several or all agencies, it will issue a bulletin. When the approved extension expires, NARA will notify the affected agencies to resume applying the normal retention periods.

NARA's approval is unnecessary when a court order requires the retention of records beyond the scheduled retention period. Agencies need to notify NARA of the extension within 30 days after the court order was issued. Besides enclosing a copy of the court order, they should provide the same information as required in the letter of request.

Separate procedures govern individual shipments of records retired to a records center. If the records center sends the agency a notice of intent to destroy specified records eligible for disposal, the agency may send the records center a letter requesting longer retention of such records if it provides written justification, including a new disposal date, and if it makes the request within 90 days of the records centers notice. If the agency wants to retain the records for longer than one year or make a lasting change in the retention period of records in a series or system, it needs to follow the procedures for submitting a schedule to NARA.

Withdrawal of Disposal Authority

In emergencies or for reasons of efficiency, NARA is authorized (under 36 CFR 1226.16) to withdraw, temporarily or permanently, disposal authority previously granted. It will do so whenever the disposal would harm Government interests or individual rights. If the withdrawal affects only one agency, NARA will send a letter of notification. If it affects more than one agency, a NARA bulletin will be issued. If the withdrawal is only temporary, agencies will be notified when to resume applying the normal retention periods; but if it is lasting, NARA will issue further instructions.

Emergency Destruction of Records

Under certain conditions, agencies may destroy records regardless of schedule provisions. Such conditions involve:

  • Records whose physical condition makes them a menace to human health or life and to property.They may be infested by vermin or may be stored under such adverse conditions that they cannot be used or repaired. In accordance with NARA regulations (36 CFR 1229.10), the agency must obtain NARA's prior approval, except for records stored on nitrate film. If an agency decides such film threatens humans or property, it is authorized to destroy it. Within 30 days the agency head must send NARA a written report describing the film and explaining when, where, and how it was destroyed. Before destroying nitrate film, the agency should be aware of the conditions under which it actually poses a threat to persons and property. Such conditions exist when the film becomes soft and sticky, emits a noxious odor, contains gas bubbles, or has retrograded into an acrid powder. NARA provides guidance to agencies regarding how to handle nitrate film and how to correct certain infestation problems through fumigation.
  • Records outside the territorial limits of the continental United States when war or other hostile action exists or threatens. The agency head may authorize the destruction of such records on grounds of harm to U.S. interests or of urgent space needs for military operations combined with a lack of sufficient administrative, legal, research, or other value to warrant continued preservation (44 U.S.C. 3311). Within 6 months the agency official responsible for the destruction must send NARA a written statement describing the records and explaining when and where they were destroyed.

Unauthorized Disposition of Federal Records

Both NARA and agencies are responsible for preventing the unauthorized disposition of Federal records, including their unlawful or accidental destruction, defacement, alteration, or removal from Federal custody. Agencies should carefully monitor the implementation of approved records schedules to prevent such unauthorized disposition. They should also inform their employees that the unauthorized disposition of Federal records is against the law (44 U.S.C. 3106) and may lead to a $2,000 fine, a 3-year imprisonment, or both (18 U.S.C. 2071). Employees should be instructed to report any such violations of the law.

Agency heads must report to NARA any unlawful or accidental removal, defacing, alteration, or destruction of records in the custody of their agency (See 36 CFR 1230.) The report should include the following:

  • A complete description of the records, along with volume and dates if known
  • The office of origin
  • An explanation of the exact circumstances surrounding the unauthorized action
  • Details, when appropriate, of the actions taken to salvage, retrieve, or reconstruct the records
  • A statement of safeguards established to prevent further losses.

NARA will assist the agency head in contacting the Attorney General to recover any unlawfully removed records. If the agency head does not notify the Attorney General within a reasonable time, NARA will request action by the Attorney General and so inform the Congress.

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