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Federal Records Act of 1950, as amended, codified at 44 U.S.C. chapters 29, 31 and 33.


Under the Act, each federal agency is required to make and preserve records that (1) document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and (2) provide the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the government and of persons directly affected by the agency's activities.[1] The Act defines a federal record without respect to format. Records include 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 government under federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency 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.

Under the Act, agencies are to manage the creation, maintenance, use, and disposition of records in order to achieve adequate and proper documentation of the policies and transactions of the federal government and effective and economical management of agency operations. If records are poorly managed, individuals might lose access to benefits for which they are entitled, the government could be exposed to legal liabilities, and records of historical interest could be lost forever. In addition, agencies with poorly managed records risk increased costs when attempting to search their records in response to Freedom of Information Act requests or litigation-related discovery actions. Finally, without effective management of the documentation of government actions, the ability of the people to hold the government accountable is jeopardized.

Effective records management is also an important tool for efficient government operation. Without adequate and readily accessible documentation, agencies may not have access to important operational information to make decisions and carry out their missions.

Accordingly, to ensure that they have appropriate recordkeeping systems with which to manage and preserve their records, agencies are required to develop records management programs.[2] These programs are intended, among other things, to provide for accurate and complete documentation of the policies and transactions of each federal agency, to control the quality and quantity of records they produce, and to provide for judicious preservation and disposal of federal records.

Among the activities of a records management program are identifying records and sources of records and providing records management guidance, including agency-specific recordkeeping practices that establish what records need to be created in order to conduct agency business.

The agency responsible for providing guidance for adhering to the Federal Records Act is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA is responsible for issuing records management guidance; working with agencies to implement effective controls over the creation, maintenance, and use of records in the conduct of agency business; providing oversight of agencies’ records management programs; approving the disposition (destruction or preservation) of records; and providing storage facilities for agency records.

Records management[]

Under the Federal Records Act and the regulations issued by NARA, records must be effectively managed throughout their life cycle, which includes records creation or receipt, maintenance and use, and [[disposition.

Creating records schedules involves identifying and [[inventorying records, appraising their value, determining whether they are temporary or permanent, and determining how long records should be kept before they are destroyed or turned over to NARA for archiving. No record may be destroyed or permanently transferred to NARA unless it has been scheduled, so the schedule is of critical importance. Without schedules, agencies would have no clear criteria for when to dispose of records and, to avoid disposing of them unlawfully, would have to maintain them indefinitely.

Electronic records[]

Electronic records are challenging to manage, especially as electronic information is being created in volumes that pose a significant technical challenge to the ability to organize and make it accessible. Further, electronic records range in complexity from simple text files to highly complex formats with embedded computational formulas and dynamic content, and new formats continue to be created. Finally, in a decentralized environment, it is difficult to ensure that records are properly identified and managed by end users on individual desktops (the "user challenge"). E-mail is particularly problematic, because it combines all these challenges and is ubiquitous.

Scheduling records, electronic or otherwise, requires agencies to invest time and resources to analyze the information that an agency receives, produces, and uses to fulfill its mission. Such an analysis allows an agency to set up processes and structures to associate records with schedules and other information (metadata) to help it find and use records during their useful lives and dispose of those no longer needed.

Records schedules are based on content and are media-neutral; that is, electronic records are classified on the same basis — by content — as physical records. In addition, agencies are to compile inventories of their information systems, after which the agency is required to develop a schedule for the electronic records maintained in those systems.

Technology alone cannot solve the problem without commitment from agencies. Electronic recordkeeping systems can be challenging to implement and can require considerable resources for planning and implementation, including establishing a sound records management program as a basis. In addition, the "user problem" is not yet solved, particularly for e-mail messages. Further, automation will not solve the problem of lack of priority, which is of long standing.


  1. 44 U.S.C. §3101.
  2. Id. §3102.