Strategic Directions: Appraisal Policy
National Archives and Records Administration
Strategic Directions: Appraisal Policy
NOTE: This document is excerpted from the internal NARA
Directive 1441 dated October 14, 2003. This document omits only
internal NARA designations of responsibilities.
This policy sets out the strategic framework,
objectives, and guidelines that the National Archives and Records
Administration (NARA) uses to determine whether Federal records have
archival value. It also provides more specific guidelines for
appraising certain categories of records.
Records appraisal is not a rote exercise. It requires informed
judgments, knowledge of and sensitivity to researchers' interests,
recognition of resource considerations, and a willingness to
acknowledge and understand comments and suggestions from diverse
perspectives. This document facilitates the appraisal process by
providing a consistent framework for appraisal decision making.
The authority and responsibility of the Archivist of the United
States to determine the retention and disposition of Federal records
stems from Chapters 21, 29, and 33 (3302, 3303a) of the Federal Records Act, 44 United States Code.
Chapters 21 and 29
of the Federal Records Act, 44 United States Code also provide for the
transfer of records with archival value to NARA's legal custody when
they are no longer needed for the conduct of agency business. NARA 1501, Custody of Federal Records of Archival Value sets out NARA's custody policy.
All Federal governmental entities create and maintain records in the
conduct of official business. However, this policy applies only to
records subject to the Federal Records Act
(FRA)—records of all executive branch agencies, the United States
District and Circuit Courts, and Legislative branch agencies. Records
created by the President and Presidential entities, the Senate, the
House of Representatives, the Architect of the Capitol, and the Supreme
Court are not subject to the FRA. The appraisal of records created by
these entities is not covered by this policy.
Certain agencies such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
are not wholly governmental and are not subject to the FRA. However,
these agencies typically follow FRA regulations and are covered by this
As employed in this policy, the terms below are defined as follows:
Appraisal – the process of determining the
value and thus the final disposition of Federal records, making them
either temporary or permanent.
Archival value – the enduring historical or
other value, as determined by the Archivist of the United States, that
warrants NARA's continued preservation of records beyond the period
required to transact the business of their originating agency or its
successor in function. Records determined to have archival value are
designated on records disposition schedules as "permanent records."
Originating agency – the Federal agency in which records are created, received, and accumulated in the conduct of business.
Permanent records – records appraised by NARA as having archival value.
Sampling – the selection of file units or items
from a body of records made in such a way that, taken together, the
items selected are representative of the whole.
Temporary records – records approved by NARA for destruction, either immediately or after a specified event or period of time.
5. Appraisal responsibilities and roles
NARA does not appraise records in isolation. As stated in its Strategic Plan,
NARA works with other interested parties to ensure that "essential
evidence is created, identified, appropriately scheduled, and managed
for as long as needed." The Archivist of the United States has the
statutory responsibility to decide how long records must be retained
and which records have archival value and thus are to be retained
permanently. In making appraisal decisions, the Archivist considers the
recommendations of NARA staff, and seeks and considers the views
expressed by originating agencies and the public.
6. Strategic framework
NARA's mission is to ensure "for the Citizen and the Public Servant,
for the President and the Congress and the Courts ready access to
Essential evidence is comprised of those records that document the:
(1) Rights of American citizens;
(2) Actions of Federal officials; and
(3) National experience.
Records that document the rights of citizens enable them to
establish their identities, protect their rights, and claim their
entitlements. Records that document actions of Federal officials that
enable them to explain past decisions, form future policy, and be
accountable for consequences. Records that document the national
experience provide the means for evaluating the effects of Federal
actions on the nation and for understanding its history, science, and
culture, including the man-made and natural environment.
Not all records that constitute essential evidence possess archival
value. Rather, NARA authorizes agencies to destroy most of these
records when they are no longer needed to meet agency business needs.
Records that are appropriate for permanent retention are discussed
below, using as a framework the definition of essential evidence
spelled out in NARA's Strategic Plan.
7. Permanent records categories
NARA uses the categories specified in the Strategic Plan
as the beginning point for appraisal. These categories provide an
overall high-level framework for the analysis of records to determine
whether or not they are permanent. Note that the three categories are
not mutually exclusive: some records that warrant permanent retention
may fit into multiple categories, while others may relate to a single
Records documenting the rights of citizens.
Many Federal records provide evidence of the legal status, rights, and
obligations of individuals, groups, organizations, and governmental
bodies. In most cases, the legal rights implications of records
eventually expire. In a few instances, however, the importance of
records for protecting legal rights endures despite the passage of
time. Records falling into this category are preserved permanently.
Records documenting the actions of Federal officials.
Most Federal records document the actions of the Government. NARA seeks
to retain that portion containing significant documentation of
Government activities and essential to understanding and evaluating
Federal actions. For example, NARA retains permanently those records
that document the basic organizational structure of Federal agencies
and organizational changes over time, policies and procedures that
pertain to an agency's core mission, and key agency decisions and
Records documenting the national experience.
Some records document the impact of Federal actions on individuals,
communities, or the natural and man-made environment. The Government
also creates and acquires much information about people, places,
material objects, and scientific phenomena, as well as about social
conditions, political and economic activities, and events in the United
States and other countries. Much of this information does not have
archival value. However, some is essential to understanding the role of
the Federal Government and the history of our nation, its people, and
8. Appraisal objectives
Within the high-level strategic framework of rights, actions of
Federal officials, and the national experience outlined above, NARA
will identify for permanent retention records that:
Retain their importance for documenting legal status, rights and
obligations of individuals, groups, organizations, and governmental
bodies despite the passage of time;
Provide evidence of significant policy formulation and business processes of the Federal Government;
Provide evidence of our Government's conduct of foreign relations and national defense;
Provide evidence of Federal deliberations, decisions, and actions relating to major social, economic, and environmental issues;
Provide evidence of the significant effects of Federal programs
and actions on individuals, communities, and the natural and man-made
Contribute substantially to knowledge and understanding of the people and communities of our nation.
9. General and specific guidelines
In determining which records support its appraisal objectives and
thus warrant permanent retention, NARA uses the general guidelines
outlined in Appendix 1. NARA has also developed specific guidelines for selected kinds of records (see Appendix 2). In the future, NARA may develop specific guidelines for other kinds of records.
NARA will reappraise records when there is compelling evidence that
earlier appraisal decisions require review. In such circumstances, NARA
will seek Federal agency and public involvement in the reappraisal
11. Policy review
NARA will review this policy as necessary in consultation with
Federal agencies, research communities, and other interested parties.
Appendix 1 – General Appraisal Guidelines
In appraising records to decide whether records have archival value
and should be retained permanently, NARA will use the guidelines found
below. Applying the guidelines to specific cases will not be a
mechanical process akin to adding up points or checking boxes. However,
using these guidelines will make decision making easier and will result
in more consistent appraisal judgments that can be readily explained
both within NARA and to outside constituents. In developing appraisal
recommendations for the Archivist of the United States, NARA staff must
address the following questions. The questions should be considered
together, rather than in isolation.
How significant are the records for research?
The future research potential of records is the most difficult
variable to determine. What is of relatively low research use today may
become of great research use in the future. Perhaps even more important
and difficult to predict are the issues and topics that will be
considered of significance in the future. Nevertheless, it is important
to consider this question in making appraisal decisions. It is
necessary to consider the kinds and extent of current research use and
to try to make inferences about anticipated use both by the public and
by the Government.
How significant is the source and context of the records?
The significance of the functions and activities performed by the
originating agency or agencies and the business context within which
the records are created are important considerations for the appraiser.
The appraiser must relate the source and context of the records to the
strategic framework and objectives found in this directive.
Is the information unique?
Appraisals must be conducted in context with other records. The
appraiser must determine whether the records under consideration are
the only or are the most complete source for significant information.
Records that contain information not available in other records
(including other Federal records as well as files accumulated by state
and local governments) are more likely to warrant permanent retention
than records containing data that is duplicated in other sources.
However, NARA may decide to retain records that contain information
available elsewhere in the case of records that are more complete or
more easily accessible than the alternative source.
How usable are the records?
Consider these three issues:
How does the way records were gathered, organized, presented, or used in the course of business affect their usability?
For example, records whose arrangement, indexing, or other identifying
information makes it easy to locate needed information are more likely
to warrant retention than records containing similar documentation that
are extremely difficult to use.
How do technical considerations affect the usability of the records?
For example, some electronic records may pose such technological
challenges that extraordinary measures may be required to recover the
information, while other records containing similar documentation
(either electronic records or records in another format) may be usable
with much less effort.
How does the physical condition of the records affect their usability? For example, some records may have deteriorated to the point that the information they contain is not readable.
Do these records serve as a finding aid to other permanent records?
Records that can be used as a finding aid to other records may
warrant retention even if the information they contain is not unique or
complete. For example, the records may enable a researcher to identify
which state or local government holds birth certificates, marriage
licenses, and other documents relevant to his or her research.
What is the timeframe covered by the information?
"Timeframe" may refer to the date span of the entire body of records
or the length of time that individual records or file units typically
The longer the date span for which there are extant files, the more
valuable the records are likely to be for research. For example, they
might be valuable to support longitudinal studies by the Government or
Some bodies of records are made up of individual documents or files
whose content covers many years. This attribute includes records where
the documents in individual files are accumulated over a relatively
short period but contain information pertaining to events covering a
long period of time (e.g., official military personnel folders or
military unit histories).
Do the records document decisions that set precedents?
Do decisions or actions of the originating agency set precedents, or
is each decision or action independent of others and merely based on
policy set at some higher level? If the former, the records are more
likely to warrant permanent retention. Examples include appellate court
decisions and policy files at the highest level within an agency.
Are the records related to other permanent records?
Other things being equal, records that add significantly to the
meaning or value of other records already appraised as permanent are
more likely to warrant retention than records lacking such a
relationship. Records that are chronological continuations of records
already in the National Archives are likely to warrant permanent
retention, particularly if the older segments of the records are
subject to high reference use.
Do the files contain non-archival records?
Files that contain only a small interspersion of records lacking
archival value (i.e., non-archival records), such as routine fiscal
documents, records relating to the issuance of expendable supplies,
etc. are more likely to be appraised as permanent than records where
the interspersion of non-archival documents is high, particularly if
the overall volume of the records is large.
When the volume of records containing some highly valuable material
is relatively small, it may still be appropriate to appraise the
records for permanent retention even if a significant fraction of the
records lack archival value. Disposition instructions should allow (but
not require) NARA to dispose of non-archival records after the
originating agency transfers the records to NARA's legal custody.
What are the cost considerations for long-term maintenance of the records?
This consideration should play a significant role only in marginal
cases. In such cases, an appraisal should balance the anticipated
research potential of the records with the resource implications of
retaining them permanently. Other things being equal, records with low
long-term cost implications are more likely to warrant permanent
retention than those records that carry high long-term costs.
What is the volume of records?
Propose for permanent retention (regardless of volume) records that
are clearly permanent in accordance with other appraisal guidelines.
Volume will play a role only in the appraisal of records whose archival
value is marginal. Other things being equal, records that are compact
are more likely to be appraised as permanent than those that are
Is sampling an appropriate appraisal tool?
Appraisal decisions that call for sampling records may be made only
after careful analysis of all other options and the costs and benefits
of implementing a sampling decision. A sampling disposition will not be
used where this option merely defers problems. Wherever possible, a
sampling disposition should be avoided where the disposition requires
item by item decisions to retain individual records or individual file
Appraisal decisions involving sampling must specify a process that
permits the easy identification of records that are to be retained
Processes that involve subjective judgments or item by item
decisions to retain individual records or individual file units require
a justification detailing the circumstances that prevent an objective,
easily implemented process and estimating the staff hours required to
perform the sampling on a year's accumulation of records.
Appraisal decisions involving sampling must specify whether the
originating agency or NARA will be responsible for implementing the
Where the need for sampling is driven by the originating
agency, this appraisal decision should only be made if the agency is
strongly committed to doing the sampling work.
Where the need for sampling is driven by NARA staff, this
appraisal decision should only be made if NARA archival personnel are
strongly committed to doing the sampling work and have the resources to
Appendix 2 – Special Considerations for Selected Types of Records
Some types of records require special consideration in the appraisal
process. The appraisal factors identified in this appendix will be used
together with the general guidelines in Appendix 1
and the strategic framework and objectives found in the main body of
this policy document. This appendix will be expanded if guidelines for
additional types of records are developed.
Personal data records contain information about an individual and
may also include information about his or her family members. Included
are such records as the personnel folders of Federal employees and
members of the armed services; the files that are accumulated in
connection with determining an individual's eligibility for Federal
Government benefits, such as a pension, medical care, or mortgage
guaranty; and the records that document the immigration to the United
States of the foreign born or their application for legal residence or
In appraising personal data records, it is necessary to take into account the following:
- Size and nature of the population
Some personal data records cover nearly all of the American
population. Records of this sort are more likely to warrant permanent
retention than records containing information on only a small
percentage of the population. However, even if the total number of
people represented in a body of personal data records is relatively
low, the records may still warrant permanent retention if they contain
information concerning a large percentage of a subgroup of the American
population (e.g., an ethnic or racial group or residents of a specific
- Nature of the information
Researchers who use personal data records have traditionally had a
high interest in the following types of information concerning
individuals. Records that are rich in the kinds of information outlined
below are more likely to warrant permanent retention than records that
contain only a small number of these elements:
- previously used names
- date and place of birth, place(s)of residence;
- date, place, and cause of death;
- if foreign-born, date and place of arrival in the US, and if naturalized, date and place of naturalization;
- names of parents;
- dates and places of parents' births and deaths;
- name(s) of spouse(s), date(s)and place(s)of marriage;
- names of children;
- date and place of children's birth;
- education level;
- educational institutions attended and the dates;
- property ownership;
- names of employers and work location(s)
- military service, including branch of service, dates of service, and rank
- identification photographs of individuals
Researchers appear to be increasingly interested in medical
information as well. NOTE: It will be necessary to monitor possible
effects of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act
(HIPAA) on access to medical information.
OBSERVATIONAL DATA FROM THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES
By their nature, scientific observational data, created by space-
and earth-based platforms, are unique, nonrepeatable, and are usually
voluminous. Records of scientific observations are created by programs
that involve the expenditure of billions of dollars, and reference
services often require specific scientific or technical expertise.
Electronic observations often require a substantial investment in both
computer hardware and software to maintain or migrate to new platforms.
Further, the data may have value to the agency, the Government, or to
the public for unanticipated uses long after they have served their
original purpose. Scientific observations are more likely to be
appraised as having archival value if:
- They cannot be extrapolated from other data sets or observations at a reasonable cost.
- Appropriate metadata or other finding aids are available.
- The observations are complete and are not dependent on other
records or observations that are appraised as temporary or are not
extant and accessible.
- NARA or a NARA-approved affiliate can provide appropriate resources for storage, preservation, and reference service.
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH AND SAFETY RECORDS
Some records that ordinarily would be appraised as temporary may
document the disposal of hazardous or toxic wastes, the exposure of
people to harmful substances, and the release of hazardous or harmful
elements into the environment. Litigation or claims against the
Government may be brought long after the actual incident or exposure,
and records that may be temporary in other circumstances, e.g., bills
of lading or building specifications, may be essential to protect the
rights of the Government or citizens. Furthermore, this value may span
several generations. These records may also be subject to public
controversy or scrutiny. It is necessary to consider these issues if
the records' archival value cannot be determined with certainty, or if
it is unclear how long they will be needed by the Government.
Environmental information is more likely to be appraised as having
archival value if:
- The records do not duplicate permanent records found in other Federal agencies or at other levels of government.
- The records provide documentation that has long term significance for legal rights or government accountability.
- The records are likely to be significant for documenting medical-related issues.
- The records adequately document the evolution of the state of the
environment from before an environmental incident to clean-up and