Making Heads or Tails of Archives’ Records

The National Archives and Records Administration is home to some 10 billion records. Wrapping your mind around 1 followed by 10 zeroes can be a challenge, and so can figuring out whether and how the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) applies to those records. OGIS is here to help. While it’s difficult to apply a rule of three to billions, consider these three broad categories of records:

  • Records that agencies have accessioned – that’s a fancy word for “added to” – to the Archives’ holdings;
  • Records that agencies have sent to an Archives records center for temporary storage; and
  • Records that the agency creates in its day-to-day business, known as operational records.

The bulk of the Archives’ holdings are accessioned records that agencies, following records control schedules, send to the Archives after a proscribed period of time, generally 30 years. (Once the records are accessioned, legal custody of the records is transferred to the Archives.)

Washington National Records Center Stack Area
The stack area of the Archives’ National Records Center in Washington

Fewer than 1 percent of Archives’ holdings have been reviewed under FOIA, but that doesn’t mean they’re not available. An estimated 95 percent of the Archives’ accessioned records are available without having to make a FOIA request. FOIA need only be used to obtain access to accessioned records that the Archives has identified as having sensitive information as outlined in the Archives’ General Restrictions.

Records that are stored at Archives’ Records Centers are in the Archives’ physical custody, but the agency from which they came retains legal responsibility, including the obligation for responding to FOIA requests for such records. The Archives does not process FOIA requests for records stored at its Records Centers. A requester would send a FOIA request to an agency which would request the records be sent over from the Archives and then would process the request and respond directly to the requester.

Operational records, created by the agency in its day-to-day business, are subject to FOIA. These include documents such as contract files, reports and e-mails, as well as records pertaining to construction of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and the re-opening earlier this year of the Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, for example. Before making a request for operational records, check out the Archives’ Electronic Reading Room to see if what you’re looking for has already been posted.

So how is a requester to make heads or tails of this? A few tips:

  • Check out the Archives’ FOIA Reference Guide. It’s loaded with information about the intersection of FOIA and Archives’ records.
  • One-third of the FOIA requests received by the Archives’ FOIA staff are for FBI records. One of our sister blogs, The Text Message, has a great post explaining how to access FBI records at the Archives.
  • If you are unsure whether FOIA applies to documents you seek, presume the records are unrestricted and no FOIA is necessary until told otherwise. If a FOIA request is required,  the Archives will let you know.
  • Noodle around online. The Archival Research Catalog (ARC) is an online catalog of the Archives’ nationwide holdings in the Washington, D.C., area, Regional Archives and Presidential Libraries. While the record you seek may not be online, you may be able to track down its location. Similarly, the Access to Archival Databases (AAD)  provides online access to electronic records (such as databases) that are highly structured.
  • Look at the secondary research available on the topic you are researching; the more information you bring to a request, FOIA or not, the greater chance of success you will have.

We hope you find this useful!

2 thoughts on “Making Heads or Tails of Archives’ Records

  1. Great overview. As a longtime Fed and a former NARA archivist, I know this. But in my present guise as a federal historian, I sometimes have to explain some of these issues to others. I’ll bookmark this so I can link to it in the future. Thanks so much for putting it up!

    1. You are welcome, Maarja. Thanks for reading our blog and for using an OGIS resource in your work as a federal historian.

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