Department of Interior Updating Their Records Schedule

Many of our readers may have seen recent items in the news media, social media or on listservs that make it seem like the Department of the Interior is making an unusual request to destroy Federal Records. We have been busily responding to inquiries about this schedule from individuals and the press for a few days. Those of you who work in records management understand the records scheduling process, but to others, this process can seem mysterious.

In this specific instance, the Department of the Interior (DOI) has NOT made any requests to immediately destroy large numbers of records. They have put in a normal request to consolidate and revise their previous records schedules into “big buckets.” This proposed schedule consolidates 400 items to facilitate implementation and intellectual control at DOI and includes permanent and temporary items. NARA and the DOI have been working on this schedule for more than two years.

Following our normal process, notification of this schedule was posted in the Federal Register. We are currently in the public comment period. Due to the increased interest in this schedule, and to promote greater transparency and public comment on the DOI request, we have extended this period until November 26, 2018. We have also posted .pdf versions of the proposed records schedule, our appraisal memo, and the related big-bucket crosswalk.

Some outlets have stated that once permanent records are transferred to the National Archives, they become less accessible to the public. One of the main reasons for the existence of the National Archives is to make government records accessible. We maintain extensive support systems for researchers at all of our facilities and are making more documents accessible online every day. Thousands of interest groups and individuals search our holdings every year for information on anything from their own military service to actions taken by the federal government hundreds of years ago.

In summary, although we encourage comments on proposed schedules, we do want commentators to understand the normal revision process of old, complex, department-wide retention schedules of which this Department of Interior schedule is a reflection.  Many agencies have gone through the process of modernizing their older schedules into “big bucket” schedules over the last several years, and this process, in and of itself, does not result in imminent destruction or loss of access to historically valuable records.

December 2020 update: Revisions to this proposed schedule, based on the thousands of comments we received, are still being negotiated with DOI. Once complete, the revised records schedule, crosswalk, appraisal memo, and consolidated reply will be published to the Federal Register for another round of public comment.

18 thoughts on “Department of Interior Updating Their Records Schedule

  1. NARA and agencies have been taken to court several times due to the fact that agencies, such as rhe FBI have been destroying records instead os accessioning these records to NARA. As the Court has repeatedly said, these records belong to the people and NARA’s role is to maintain records that the people want preserves, not to pander to the wants of the agencies. Too many records have been destroyed, while still under agency control, that should have been released to NARA. Changes need to be made, ensuring that agencies cannot destroy records.

    1. Not everything can be kept. There is not enough space, not enough funding, not enough staffing, and not enough demand. Not to mention that most records simply have no permanent value. Only a small percentage of records are permanent, and even many of those hardly ever or even never get requested by researchers.

      1. So accession them to NARA, create a finding aid, and let the people decide. Most upper management at NARA, and, within the agencies have no clue what the people want. Digitize them, and then dispose, but human error always leaves records out, or they get scanned in black and white keaving out vital historical data.
        You are the custodian of the records. So do what you have to do to get the storage, the staff, to do your job. Form 3rd party partnerships, go to Congress, every day, if necessary, to get the money you need to do the job. Don’t destroy records.

      2. “You are the custodian of the records. So do what you have to do to get the storage, the staff, to do your job.”

        The laws which define the job of the National Archives do not give it the mission of preserving everything, but explicitly acknowledge that many records are of temporary value.

        Karen, it would take a small moon to permanently store all the records created by the federal government and enough staff to process and describe them. Consider how much space and how many people are needed just to manage the active records created and used every year by the federal government. You’d need to dedicate almost as many people and dramatically more space to manage the archival records if you kept everything.

        At the very least, you should be able to agree that not every single request for toner, sign in sheet, draft spreadsheet, sticky note, and party planning memo needs to be saved for the life of the republic.

        No institutional archives keeps everything. Appraisal in a core part of the profession. Appraisal archivists do consult with the custodial units to find out what the researchers are looking for.

        1. Jason, I can’t tell you how many times, while doing research, a simple piece of paper has made all of the difference in the world. For example, Lincoln wrote notes to himself, which never made it in a speech, but enriched how and what he thought. It helped to define what it meant to be a leader, a statesman, someone with a moral compass.
          These records, no matter if they are a piece of paper, or a report help provide the context of decisions that were made by the federal government.
          And, by the way, the reason so many of the records are not requested by the researchers, is because the agency, nor the Archives, provides a finding aid describing the records that have been accessioned.
          And yes, I understand that 13.5 billion records, with more coming in all of the time requires experienced archival staff to preserve those records, defining those records, to assist the “People” in utilizing those records.
          The Archives has known that they were running out of space for almost 2 decades now. The experienced subject matter archival staff have been removed, replacing them with General archivists, who are expected to know the 13 billion records enough to help researchers. And when you have only 30 conservators to preserve and repair damaged records, (13.5 billion and counting), the staff are like fish floundering on the shore. They are literally drowning because there is not enough staff to do their jobs. The primary mission of the Archives, which is to preserve and provide access has been diminished, for years. The strategic plan which has stated that they will digitize all records is a plan that is not realistic. It will cost trillions of dollars to not only digitize the records, but to place them online, in a manner, which compliments the physical access. Putting them online as individual documents, just does not cut it. And to top it off, you have to have a large division of people to digitize, to add the proper metadata, to transcribe the records, and then to top it off, have a large team of people who have to annually evaluate what has been put online and migrate to what the current technology is. It is not a one time thing, it will be a constant process.
          Destroying records, especially by this administration, does not bring transparency, but denies access to records that will help researchers determine the environment, wildlife reservation, timber, etc., all which is handled by the Department of the Interior.
          Sorry, but I have seen too many important records destroyed because agencies have been destroying them, instead of accessioning them to NARA, and allowing the Archival staff, who know what the researchers are looking for, to determine if the records should be retained, or invite other libraries or universities the choice of housing those records. Once they are destroyed, they are gone. There is no second chance to correct something that has been destroyed.

      3. lincolngroupdc, you are talking about what would under modern records law be considered presidential records. If the National Archives and the Presidential Records Act had been around during Lincoln’s presidency practically every scrap of writing to come out of the his Administration would have been preserved under the PRA, and rightfully so.

        Federal Records are different from Presidential Records. The vast majority are temporary, for very good reason. You rightfully point out the challenges that NARA has keeping up with its current workload, yet apparently want to multiply the workload at least 50 times what it is right now. No amount of funding will ever make it practical or even desirable to keep _everything_ that federal agencies have created in the 20th and 21st centuries. I think your focus on mid 19th century records has left you with an insufficient appreciation of the scale of what was created in the typewriter age, much less the commuter age, and the trivial irrelevancy of most of it once it is no longer needed for immediate use.

        “Destroying records, especially by this administration,”

        The current presidential administration has nothing to do with anything. In case you haven’t noticed, we are discussing a 2015 schedule, and nearly every category of recorded classed as temporary under the schedule has always been temporary, going back at least to the 1970s and perhaps as long as the relevant agencies have been around and have had record schedules. From the very earliest days of the National Archives, the majority of federal records have been destroyed rather than be retained as permanent.

    2. “instead of accessioning them to NARA, and allowing the Archival staff, who know that the researchers are looking for, to determine if the records should be retained”

      This is exactly the process for making doing that. Archival staff, up to and including the Archivist of the United States, are using this process for making that determination. Not only are the people in Appraisal involved but also the staff in the custodial units who interact the researcher community. Furthermore, the researcher community itself is being given a chance to comment. So if you can identify a specific reason why any of these specific records need to be around 1000 years from now, this is your chance, just as it was your chance to provide input every time that many of these same records were appraised and scheduled in the last 40 years or so. And some of the temporary records will be retained upward to 75 years and may well be reappraised and rescheduled sometime in the future.

      However, accessioning records to NARA before disposing of them is not practical. Accessioning is the process of bringing in permanently valuable archives into the legal and physical custody of the National Archives. There is no space to bring in temporary records even temporarily, and even if there was, shipping them to NARA would be a big waste of manpower and resources. That’s a whole lot of truck fuel being burned, for example.

      1. Anonymous, the archival staff I have talked to have NOT been involved in looking at records to determine their worth. And I can’t tell you how many important records have been deleted by agencies because they DO NOT have a clue what the researchers want, and in this case, Zinke wants to delete records that are of great importance to determine possible payments to Native Americans for timber and other resources that were taken off of their lands, with payment they should have received for those resources. Contracts, and many of the other records are very important in determining exactly how to interpret the financial records.
        As an example of records lost by agencies that have destroyed records:
        1. Prison cards from some of the notorious criminals during and after the Prohibition period. 75 years of life before destruction is definitely not long enough for those in the future who wish to do research on previous periods of time.
        2. Court and Trial transcripts of cases during the 1940s dealing with espionage and sabatoge. Once again, a 75 year life for a lot of these records, should be made permanent records.

        And, as you were stating before, the difference between the Lincoln Administration and later administrations, even important records, like pay vouchers for Union officers from Treasury never seemed to make it to the Archives. Either the Army still has the records somewhere and has not released them to NARA, or they simply destroyed them.

        An Archives, is an Archives. Yes, government grew, more agencies were created as warranted, papers have grown, just as our population has increased. Government has to adapt to take care of the needs of the Archives and the responsibility to preserve and protect these records.

        Those researchers who know about this comment process are stating in loud voice
        “NO” “NO” “NO”, to destroying these records.

  2. Comparing the categories marked “temporary” with those marked “permanent,” as a citizen I find it disturbing that, for example, “financial reports and summaries” are to be permanently retained, while things like energy lease applications, shallow seismic data geohazards analysis, airborne hunting reports, land acquisition and classification records, “Public, Community, and non-Community Water Filing Systems for Bacteria Analysis, Chemical Analysis, and Violations and Measures Taken,” water quality and ecology studies, fish and animal counts, endangered species progress reports, and oil and gas lease application case files are all to be “temporary.” Why would the American people care only about how much Interior Department activities cost, and not substantial information about the land being transferred, the water being tested, and the interactions between the DOI and oil and gas companies? Why should this not be seen as a problem?

  3. Can someone explain why records that have significant scientific value but appear to not be of interest to NARA researchers should be temporary? (e.g. on page 9: “Has little to no research value. This is a high-volume series that contains data and
    records that have scientific worth and can be re-used to create other records, but they do not have continuing value to NARA researchers.”) Are NARA researchers or historians given more weight than scientists?

    1. Lon, upper management at NARA, as well as Records Officers at each of the agencies have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what the researchers are looking for. The agencies have absolutely no business destroying these kinds of records. They provide the context for the financial records. The records provide society of the mindset the government was in concerning wildlife, environment, etc. The Dept. Of Justice uses contracts all the time to take to court companies that violated environmental policies. The records should be accessioned to NARA, and if they choose not to retain them, there are plenty of universities/libraries that are federal depositories, whose major concern is the environment, timber, etc., which would take these records in a heartbeat. But NARA requires extremely high standards to these facilities, and making no sense whatsoever, would prefer destroying the records, then permanently placing them elsewhere.
      NARA is running out of space, is losing another 25% of their budget in 2019, losing staff. I understand their current financial difficulties, but it is time that the researchers demand proper funding. But this Congress, and this President have no time for history.

  4. Given that these are public records generated using tax payer dollars, couldn’t the govt release those records they deem “not of interest…” to a public university or consortium instead of destroying them?

    1. Given that the largest archives in the nation, the one that has as its mission storing the permanently valuable records of the federal government, does not consider them permanent valuable, what makes you think that any university library has the storage space, staffing, or money to keep, preserve, process and make available records that are not part of their current mission?

  5. Having worked along side the “top officials at NARA,” I disagree with the mistaken assertions that they do not know what the public wants. They spend most of their time balancing the interests of their numerous “clients” – not only citizens but also lawyers and and an infinite number of other interested parties including the federal agencies whose records they hold in longer-term storage.

    NARA (including the Archivist of the US and his senior staff as well as the rest of NARA’s highly trained workforce) do an amazing job, especially given that their very limited resources. Each of the NARA staff I have had direct contact with both in DC and College Park as well as all of the presidential libraries and most of their regional records centers are dedicated to the important responsibility they serve in the government each and every day. None of them takes their duties lightly.

    Most people outside the organization have no idea how complex it really is. Not only are they attempting not only to preserve but make available records to the public for a variety of individual interests (genealogy, land records, etc.), they have to juggle legal requirements and also working with federal agencies who may or may not understand the role of the National Archives in the federal government.

    I served as a representative on The public served by NARA on the Advisory Committee for the Electronic Records Archive and that advised the previous and current Archivist on how to make this complex process happen. Each of us knows how difficult it has been to transform our own personal records into digital format. Imagine what it takes for a government agency that is responsible to most of the other federal agencies to do this same job? Not a simple task. And there were, of course, several heated discussions about which direction to go to best serve the needs of EVERYONE who depends on NARA for access to its records.

    Working alongside teachers and students, we have all witnessed the leaps and bounds made in the last ten years alone making records accessible to everyone, including those who may never actually step foot onto the grounds of the physical National Archives. Numerous individuals are involved here but I’ve seen firsthand not only how Archivist Ferriero as well as his senior staff, especially Deb Wall, and people like Pamela Wright who are directly involved in the day-to-day work of interacting with the public and the increasingly enhanced electronic access to records for EVERYONE.

    For example, figuring out a way for citizens outside the archives to help with transcriptions of records, including adding metadata, was HUGE. NARA stafff literally moved mountains to make this happen.

    Not all of us may agree on the tough decisions NARA has to make each and every day but they are definitely headed in the right direction. The Archivist has reminded us that we have an opportunity to comment AGAIN on how NARA continually works to improve its accessioning process. We have been offered these opportunities at every turn and I can also attest that the info received is definitely taken seriously by senior NARA staff as they work together to make decisions to benefit all of us.

    Keep up the great work, NARA. You are certainly appreciated!

  6. The preservation staff less than 3 dozen, as well as the archival staff, in the various research rooms, whom I have been working with over the last 20 years, are top notch at their jobs, and definitely don’t get paid enough for the quality work they perform each day to assist thise who do research. They should be recognized as the jewels in the crown, of the staff, at NARA, because they do their best to providequality service to the researchers.
    As a former teacher, all researchers and research projects are different, which require multiple ways to do that research. Digitization allows the technology to locate related records across the hundreds of record groups and millions of entries. For those who cannot physically come to the National Archives, digitization provides that access. But for others, working in a research room environment, working with the records, working eith a team to analyse data, provides a wider range of context, to the very limited ability to examine multiple records using a computer.
    Having access to those records is vitally important.
    Reduction of budgets, lack of space, lack of the staff necessary to fulfull their jobs, retirement of staff with the institutional memory lost, as they leave the job, all play an important role in the job they are expected to do.
    I don’t expect that Congress is going to do much of anything to provide NARA with the necessary funds to ease the storage needs, nor to increase the staff necessary to preserve and provide ac ess to these records.
    But it does not mean that records should be destroyed before allowing the archival staff and researchers the opportunity to see samples of the records, and give other institutions, like libraries or universities, the opportunity to house these records, if NARA chooses not to accession the records.
    Once they are destroyed, we can’t turn the clock back.

  7. I understand the reason that departments are allowed to destroy records, but given the current political situation, there has to be a way to stop this for the duration of this administration. We are on the edge of what might develop into a constitutional crisis, and I believe it’s important that we don’t burn any possible paper trails that might someday lead us to a better understanding of the current situation. Not to mention, the Mueller Probe is still underway! There’s got to be a way to find room for these documents

    1. In response to silentmagelvx:

      1) NARA is apolitical. It can’t just suspend federal records management based on people’s feelings about the current administration.

      2) How much data about Russian influence operations on US elections (the focus of the special counsel investigation) to you think you are going to find in US Army laundry receipts, to name just one category of temporary records I’ve recently had reason to become aware of.

      3) If you want to temporarily stop the destruction of a specific category of records, file a law suit and convince a federal judge that those records are relevant to your litigation. That _might_ result in a _temporary_ litigation hold on disposing of the records.

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