Federal Records Management

Record Values


Once the agency has reviewed its functions and recordkeeping requirements and practices and has inventoried its records, it is ready to evaluate those records and prepare draft disposition instructions. This evaluation and scheduling process, which includes information analysis and decision-making, places all records into one of two categories:

  • Temporary: Authorized for disposal immediately or after a specified retention period.
  • Permanent: Disposal not authorized. Unless otherwise agreed to by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), authorized for transfer to the National Archives.

Agency and NARA Roles

Agencies play an important part in this process by establishing retention periods for nonrecord materials and recommending to NARA retention periods for records. Although NARA is solely responsible for appraising Federal records and approving their final disposition, agency records officers need an understanding of appraisal objectives and standards to prepare and implement schedules.

Appraisal is the process by which NARA evaluates records to determine their final disposition, designating them as either temporary (disposable) or permanent (archival). It is basic to records disposition, which in turn is basic to all of records and information management. The appraisal process is complex and challenging and requires an understanding of:

  • The agency's functions, its documentation practices, and its record and information policies, procedures, and systems.
  • The importance of records, especially permanent records, in documenting and preserving the memory of an agency, the Federal Government, and American society.
  • The role of records disposition, including appraisal, in avoiding both a loss of documentation and too much documentation.
  • The agency and NARA perspectives on the value of records.

Records fall into three categories—those easy to appraise because they are obviously permanent, those easy to appraise because they are clearly temporary, and those in between that are difficult to appraise. Some records, such as treaties, laws, executive orders, and Supreme Court decisions, obviously have permanent value. Likewise, records of an administrative, or housekeeping, nature clearly have only temporary value and are disposable after a suitable retention period.

Between these two extremes fall many modern program records. Such program records are difficult to appraise because they document diverse agency functions, reflect differing record systems and practices, have various physical forms and characteristics, and contain a broad range of unique information. They require considerable attention in the appraisal and scheduling process.

Guidelines for Evaluating and Scheduling Records

In evaluating and scheduling records for final disposition, it is important to recognize that:

  • Records may have permanent value regardless of their physical form or characteristics. The medium may be paper, electronic, audiovisual, microform, or some other, but as records they must be scheduled for an appropriate disposition, which may be permanent.
  • The agency may avoid recommending duplicate information for permanent retention by comparing similar records created at different organizational levels. NARA generally designates as permanent only the most complete series of records. In rare instances, two series of records documenting the same activity or containing substantially the same information are designated for permanent retention if they are arranged differently (e.g., chronologically as opposed to alphabetically by subject) and if these different arrangements make them easier to use.
  • Because agency programs vary in importance, the number of record series or systems designated as permanent will also vary.
  • An agency does not need to evaluate or schedule all its records simultaneously. Instead it may do so incrementally, that is, office by office or function by function, until all its records are covered.
  • The NARA appraisal archivist is available for advice and assistance throughout the process.

Inventory Analysis

After completing and verifying the inventory, records managers should examine the inventory for an overview of agency documentation practices. In doing so, it is helpful to bear in mind these three characteristics of Federal agency records:

  • Program records are generally more voluminous than administrative, or housekeeping, records.
  • Comparatively few records are permanent, although the exact proportion varies from agency to agency and from office to office.
  • Case files are generally far more voluminous than all other types of Federal records combined.

In analyzing the records described in the inventory, records managers should focus on the agency's organization, functions, and activities and distinguish between program and administrative records. They should also ensure that all records, regardless of medium, have been identified for the organizational unit or function covered. Sometimes it may be necessary to obtain more information from program and other agency officials before proposing disposition instructions for particular series or systems.

Record Values

All records have value to the agency creating or receiving them or to oversight or other agencies. A few also have permanent value and warrant preservation by the National Archives once the agency no longer needs them to conduct regular current business. The following sections describe the agency's and NARA's perspectives on the value of records.

General Records Schedules

In evaluating its records and preparing disposition instructions, the agency should make proper use of the General Records Schedules (GRS) as it continues to develop a draft comprehensive records schedule. Such a draft schedule is based on records disposition authorities derived from the GRS and one or more approved Requests for Records Disposition Authority.

Evaluating Records: The Agency's Viewpoint

Records have value to an agency because:

  • They are the basic administrative tool by which the agency conducts its business.
  • They document the agency's organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions.
  • They furnish the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the agency's activities.

Agency record values fall into three overlapping categories: (1) administrative, (2) fiscal, and (3) legal. Understanding these values can help records officers propose to NARA retention periods that will satisfy agency needs.

Administrative Value

All records have administrative value because they are necessary to conduct the agency's current business. The duration of this value may be long or short. Some records, such as program directives, have long-term administrative value. Others, such as messenger service files, have short-term administrative value. Many records at operating levels have short-term administrative value because they are correspondence duplicated elsewhere, reports summarized at higher agency levels, or logs serving as temporary controls.

Fiscal Value

Along with general administrative value, some records may have fiscal value. Records with fiscal value document the agency's financial transactions and obligations. They include budget records, which show how expenditures were planned; voucher or expenditure records, which indicate the purposes for which funds were spent; and accounting records, which classify and summarize agency expenditures. Such agencies as the Office of Management and Budget, the General Accounting Office, the Treasury Department, and the General Services Administration prescribe the form and content of many fiscal records. In most instances, only the data on the forms differ from agency to agency. Consequently the General Records Schedules (GRS) provide disposition authorities for many temporary fiscal records.

Legal Value

Besides administrative and fiscal value, records may also have legal value. Some legal values relate to records that the law requires the Government to create and maintain in the course of its operations. Others, however, are quite broad and do not necessarily involve an agency's operations. Instead they are intended to protect the rights of individuals and organizations. Such records are useful in documenting legally enforceable rights or obligations, both those of the Government and those of persons directly affected by an agency's activities.

Records with legal value contain information that may be used to support rights based on the provisions of statute or regulation. These provisions may be general, such as the statute of limitations on claims or fraud; or they may be specific, such as those providing benefits to persons who have been discharged from the military.

Legal value has long been associated with records documenting such matters as benefits and property ownership. More recently, however, it has also been identified with records documenting environmental and potential health concerns, such as the handling or regulation of chemical and nuclear materials.

Examples of records with legal value include formal decisions and legal opinions; documents containing evidence of actions in particular cases, such as claims papers and legal dockets; and documents involving legal agreements, such as leases, titles, and contracts. They also include records relating to criminal investigations, workers' compensation, exposure to hazardous material, and the issuance of licenses and permits. Still other examples include records relating to loans, subsidies, and grants; entitlement programs such as food stamps and social security; and survivor benefits in Government pension and other programs.

Special concern for legal value applies only to temporary records, because if records are permanent they will always be available to protect legal rights. The GRS designates as temporary many records with legal value, such as those relating to contracts, claims, property disposal, payroll, and civilian personnel.

The duration of legal value varies with the matter at hand. For example, the legal value of contracts and claims records diminishes rapidly after final settlement, and it ends when relevant statutes of limitations expire. Based on statutes of limitation and fraud, other statutory provisions, and practical considerations such as lifespan, records with legal value may be disposable, although they may require a long retention period.

Before recommending retention periods for records that may have legal value, agencies should seek the advice of their general counsel. Factors to be considered in determining retention periods include applicable statutes of limitation, regulatory limits for claims or prosecution, the potential for fraud, and litigation trends involving procedural or substantive rights. They also include particular statutes or regulations granting or limiting a specific legal right as well as the availability of the same information in other record series or systems.

Agencies should retain documentation adequate to establish that they have fully considered legal rights in proposing retention periods for temporary records.

Evaluating Records: NARA's Viewpoint

NARA's Appraisal Responsibility

Although agencies recommend retention periods, only NARA can determine and 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 in civilian personnel records and the General Accounting Office in program and financial records.
  • Cooperates with agencies to identify and schedule records having permanent value.

NARA designates records as permanent if they have sufficient historical or other value to warrant their continued preservation by the Government. Such records may be kept mainly because they document an agency's origins, organization, functions, and significant transactions and activities. Or they may be kept mainly because they document the persons, places, things, or matters dealt with by an agency; that is, because they contain information with significant research or reference value.

Additional guidance on appraisal:

NARA's Use of Sampling and Other Selection Techniques

Although records appraisal normally involves determining the disposition of a series or system as a whole, occasionally NARA selects only individual files from one series for permanent retention. This selection may be qualitative (based on the information content of the files) or quantitative (based on a random or statistical sample). When recommending such selection, agencies should include the type and the proposed method of accomplishment.

Sampling is most frequently implemented with case files, which are records, regardless of media, documenting a specific action, event, person, place, project, or other matter. Sometimes called project or transaction files, they document particular agency activities from initiation to conclusion. Although the case files in most series or systems are scheduled for disposal, sometimes NARA designates all of those in a series or system for permanent retention, especially when they are electronic master files. Occasionally, however, NARA selects only a few of those in a series or system for permanent retention. Individual case files may be chosen because the case meets one or more of the following criteria:
a. It establishes a precedent and results in a major policy or procedural change.
b. It is involved in extensive litigation.
c. It receives widespread attention from the news media.
d. It is widely recognized for its uniqueness by specialists or authorities outside the Government.
e. It is reviewed at length in the agency's annual report to the Congress.
f. It constitutes a significant accumulation of documentary material and information on a particular subject (a "fat file").
g. It is selected to document agency procedures rather than capture information on the subject of the individual file.

Criteria "a" through "f" indicate the exceptional nature of particular case files, whereas criterion "g" relates to routine files chosen because they illustrate the agency's procedures. Individual case files selected as permanent under these criteria may include, but are not limited to, research grants awarded for studies; research and development projects; investigative, enforcement, and litigation case files; social service and welfare case files; labor relations case files; case files related to developing natural resources and preserving historic sites; and public works case files.

Sometimes a case file series may be approved for disposal because the agency maintains an electronic index containing extensive information on the cases. Such indexes themselves may be selected for permanent retention. NARA may also select as permanent those final reports and decisions drawn from case files but maintained separately.

Below is an example of a permanent schedule item that includes a sample.

Unfair Labor Practices Official Case Files.

All papers relating to the agency's processing of charges of unfair labor practices ("C" cases). Arranged alphabetically by name of case while pending, by type of case and thereunder by case number after the case is closed.

Close case upon notification of final action by regional director, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), or the court, and place in closed case file. Cut off file at end of calendar year.

1. Selected for permanent retention: Between 1 and 3 percent of all NLRB case files, these illustrate significant developments in the administration of the National Labor Relations Act or otherwise represent the most important cases considered by the Board in a given year and are selected according to the following factors:

(A) The nature of the substantive or procedural issues involved, as constituting a landmark or lead case.

(B) The intensity of public interest and comment.

(C) The impact upon the local or national economy of the actions giving rise to the case.

(D) The unique character of the issues or procedures involved, as demonstrating the agency's resourcefulness.

(E) The case's influence on the development of principles, precedents, policies, or standards of judgment in such matters as the definition of the jurisdiction of the Board and the limits of interstate commerce; the meaning of unfair practices; the implications of bargaining in good faith; the determination of what constitutes undue interference, restraint, or coercion; the unit appropriate for purposes of collective bargaining; and the problem of inclusion in bargaining units of fringe group or supervisory employees.

(F) The numbers of workers affected or the size of the establishment shall not be regarded alone as a criterion of importance, but attention should be given to the preservation of the history of the efforts to organize a given industry.

Permanent. Transfer to Headquarters Case Records Unit 2 years after cutoff. Case Records Unit will transfer merged cases to FRC 3 years after cutoff. Transfer to the National Archives in 5-year blocks 20 years after cutoff (e.g., transfer 198185 block in 2006).

2. Not selected for permanent retention.

Temporary. Transfer to FRC 2 years after cutoff. Destroy 6 years after cutoff.

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