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Records Management

Frequently Asked Questions [FAQs]


Why should I take care of Federal Records?

Federal law (44 U.S.C. 3101) requires that the head of each agency shall:

make and preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and designed to furnish the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the agency's activities. 

Documentary materials created or received by the REE agencies of USDA in pursuance of Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business are records and the property of the U.S. Government.

Every day the agencies conduct research and other business that affect all Americans and in doing so record and keep information about their actions.  Through the management of their records, the agencies establish and maintain control over information and administrative operations, so that they can remain accountable to the public and agency staff can make timely and informed decisions.  Properly managed records will ensure that information is available when and where it is needed, in an organized and efficient manner.

Records are systematically managed through the institution of a records management program.  A properly implemented records management program will enable agency staff to:

  • Quickly and efficiently locate accurate information.
  • Provide faster and more accurate responses to Congressional inquiries, Freedom of Information Act requests, and other audits, inquiries, and investigations.
  • Devote a greater portion of time to serving customers.

By identifying inactive files and transferring them to far less expensive offsite storage, and discarding nonrecord material, staff will also realize substantial cost savings for the agency.  Costs are further reduced when less floor space and filing cabinets are needed to store records, and staff spends less time on research and file location.

As a Federal employee, you have an obligation to make the records of your work available to the citizens of the United States.  Records management programs provide a system for managing records that balances the need for public access against the need for efficient office management.  Records management saves taxpayer dollars by ensuring that expensive office space is not filled with obsolete records, and it also guarantees that a record of the public business is available for inspection for a reasonable period of time.

Why do I have to follow records management procedures?

You must follow Records Management Procedures as mandated by the following laws:

which are further defined in the following Departmental Regulations:

What are the penalties for non-compliance?

The unauthorized disposition of Federal records (44 U.S.C. 3106), including their unlawful or accidental destruction, defacement, alteration, or removal from Federal custody, may lead to a $2,000 fine, a three year imprisonment, or both (18 U.S.C. 2071).

What is a record?

A record is recorded information, regardless of physical type or medium, created or received and maintained during the course of business by REE staff.  The subject matter and not the format determines whether an item is a record.  For example, a record could be a video stored on a VHS tape, a printed letter, a calendar of appointments, a map, an email message, a website, or even a phone list.

Ask yourself if the information shows what was done, why it was done, who did it, when was it done, and who paid for it.  If any of the answers points to official business, you probably have an official record.  Records should be identified in a records retention and disposition schedule.  When in doubt, or when no schedule is available, ask the REE Records Management Officer.

What are records retention and disposition schedules?

Records retention and disposition schedules are documents that contain descriptions of the record series, or kinds of records produced in your office, and how long those records must be kept in your office or kept in the records center, before they can be legally destroyed or transferred to the National Archives.  Records retention and disposition schedules serve as the official authorization to destroy or transfer records.  Records retention and disposition schedules may be revised and updated as necessary but each revision must be approved by the REE Records Management Officer and the National Archives before they can be used to authorize destruction or transfer of records.

What do I do if I can't find a record on one of the records schedules?

How should I set up my files?

For help, see File Systems, or “Six Steps to Better Files” on EPA’s Records Management website.

How long should I keep these files?

Should I keep files here even when I don't use them?

NO!  Inactive records, with more than twelve months left until authorized disposition, should be sent to the nearest Federal Records Center. 

In the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, use the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, MD. 

How do I retire records to a Federal Records Center?

See “Retiring Records to a Federal Records Center” (FRC). More detailed instructions are available in the Procedures Manual in the section on " Storing Records at Federal Records Centers. "

If the records are not properly scheduled, you may not send them to an FRC.

How do I obtain records center boxes?

You can obtain boxes through normal supply channels or order directly from the General Services Administration (GSA), as follows:

  • NSN 8115-00-117-8249: Standard size - white, 14-3/4"x12"x9-1/2" used for standard and legal size file folders.
  • NSN 8115-00-117-8338: Half size - natural (tan), 14-3/4"x9-1/2"x4-7/8" used for standard and legal size file folders, cassette tapes, microforms, and videos.
  • NSN 8115-00-117-8347: Special use - white, 14-3/4"x11-3/4"x11-3/4" used for magnetic tapes.
  • NSN 8115-01-025-3254: Special use - natural (tan), 14-3/4" x 6-1/2" x 4-1/2" used for microforms.

The boxes come in bundles of 25.

How do I recall records from a Federal Records Center?

  • All headquarters and field office reference requests must be placed through the REE Records Management Officer (RMO) , or a designated alternate, using form OF-11Word Doc [Icon] .

  • Before placing a reference request you must determine where the files are located.  Refer to your office copy of the SF-135 which authorized transfer of the accession that includes the file(s) you wish to retrieve.

  • Next, complete form OF-11.  Include the accession number, box number, and records center location code.  You will find the location code in block 6(j) of the SF-135.  Contact the RMO for assistance if your file copy does not include a shelf location.  Be sure to indicate whether you're requesting a box or a file folder.  Under remarks, indicate if the records are to be picked up by USDA Courier Services, or if they should be delivered by the Federal Records Center (FRC). Complete the name and address block at the bottom of the form showing where to send the records if they are to be delivered.

  • Check the appropriate box, under "Nature of Service," indicating whether you are requesting a copy, permanent withdrawal, temporary loan, or other service.

  • Fax the completed form to the RMO at (202) 720-3907.

NOTE : If you decide to keep the records after they have been recalled, tell the RMO ASAP so that the FRC can be notified!

For more information on retrieving records from FRCs or the National Archives, consult the REE Records Management Procedures Manual.

Are email and IM considered records?

Under certain circumstances, email and IM do constitute Federal records.  To determine whether the information contained in the email message makes it a record, ask whether it:

  • contains information developed in preparing briefing papers, reports, and studies.
  • reflects official actions taken while conducting agency business.
  • conveys information on agency programs, policies, and essential activities.
  • conveys statements of policy or the rationale for official decisions or actions.
  • documents oral exchanges, such as meetings or telephone conversations, during which policy was discussed or formulated or agency activities were planned and discussed, and the like.

Duplicate copies of one message may all be records.  If more than one office takes action or otherwise uses copies of the same message, each copy is considered to be a record.

How do I manage email and IM records?

Agency staff should continue to follow GRS 20 in disposing of certain electronic versions of email, word processing documents, and other computer-generated material if the records are first saved by copying to a paper, microform, or electronic recordkeeping system.  The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will now accept the transfer of permanent email messages and their attachments in standard markup language, or in their native format, if:

  • They are part of an identifiable, organized body of records, such as the email records of the Deputy Administrator.
  • The records are scheduled for transfer in an approved SF-115.
  • They are part of an email system or from a DoD 5015.2 Certified Records Management Application.

NARA will accept attachments in their native formats, such as PDF, image file formats, and common office automation formats.  At the time this web site was created, NARA will not accept email messages that have been converted to PDF or other image file formats for purposes of transfer. 

Both the email message and the transmission and receipt data are Federal records and must be maintained for the same length of time.  Transmission and receipt data are the information in the email system which identifies the following:

  • sender and addressee(s).
  • the date and time the message was sent.
  • the date and time the message was received.
  • an acknowledgment of receipt or access by the addressee(s). 

Any attachments to email messages that are judged to be records must also be saved.

NARA has proposed that Federal agencies be allowed to dispose of short-term temporary email records (that is, those with dispositions of six months or less) without creating a paper or electronic recordkeeping copy. Email covered under this proposal can remain in a live email system, provided that:

  • Users do not delete the messages before the expiration of the NARA-approved retention period.
  • The system’s automatic deletion rules ensure the preservation of the records for the length of the retention period.
  • All records that have been requested under FOIA or that are the subject of audit, investigation, or litigation can be frozen until the matter is resolved.

These records may include:

  • Routine request for information or publications and replies which require no administrative action, no policy decision, and no special compilation or research.
  • Copies of letters of transmittal that do not add any information to that contained in the transmitted material.
  • Announcements and notices, such as charity and welfare fund appeals, bond campaigns, and holiday announcements, that do not serve as the basis for official actions.
  • Records of routine activities containing no substantive information, such as routine notifications of meetings and other scheduling-related activities.
  • Suspense or tickler files or to-do and task lists that serve only as reminders.

If you use an external communications system that is neither owned nor controlled by the agency to conduct government business, you may be creating Federal records, and the agency still has an obligation under the Federal Records Act to maintain such records.  Everyone who uses these systems must ensure that Federal records sent or received on these systems are preserved and must also take reasonable steps to capture available transmission and receipt data and the identities of the recipients.

For more information on the management and disposition of email records, consult the "Electronic Mail" section in the REE Records Management Manual, 251.8M.

How long do I need to keep email records?

Retain email records in accordance with your office's file plan and the records schedules.  The exact length of time will vary depending on the activity that the message documents.  Retentions range from thirty days to permanent.

What if the message does not qualify as a record?

Delete email that is not a record when it is no longer of use.

Do I have to print out all my email records?

Yes, until an electronic recordkeeping system is installed and implemented, and REE agency records retention schedules are updated.  Print out the messages that qualify as records and file them in your organization's paper files. Be sure to print out the Properties page, as it contains the required transmission and receipt data, and attach it to the email message.

The National Archives has proposed that Federal agencies be allowed to dispose of short-term temporary email records (that is, those with dispositions of six months or less) without creating a paper or electronic recordkeeping copy. See “How do I manage email and IM records?”

Can email records be preserved on backup tapes or disks?

No, system backup tapes are not suitable for recordkeeping purposes because they are merely a storage medium for data and do not provide a means for organizing, searching, retrieving, or managing the documents based on their disposition.  System backup tapes are only meant to recreate email messages in an emergency.

How can I distinguish personal papers from Federal records?

Personal papers are defined in federal regulations as “...documentary materials, or any reasonably segregable portion thereof, of a private or nonpublic character that do not relate to or have any effect upon the conduct of agency business." [36 CFR 1222.36(a)]

These are the generally accepted classes of personal papers:

  • Materials accumulated before joining government service that are not subsequently used in the transaction of Government business, such as previous work files, political materials, and reference files.
  • Materials relating solely to an individual's private affairs, such as family and personal correspondence; materials documenting outside business pursuits, professional affiliations, or private political associations that do not relate to agency business; manuscripts and drafts for articles and books; and volunteer and community service records.
  • Diaries, journals, or other personal notes that are not prepared or used for, or circulated or communicated in the course of, transacting Government business.
  • Extra copies maintained for convenience of reference, provided they are not used in the conduct of agency business.

Officials may duplicate some agency records (usually those that they have originated, reviewed, signed, or otherwise acted upon) so that, with agency approval, they may take these nonrecord copies with them when they leave office.

Personal papers include:

  • Your copies of personnel actions, performance standards, and similar documents.
  • Materials for your activities as a member of a union or a professional association.
  • A journal of daily events maintained for your personal use that is separate from the schedule of daily activities you use for your job.
  • Notes taken for your personal use at a training course.
  • Notes taken for your personal use at a meeting that 1) are not circulated to other staff, and 2) are not used as a basis for action.

These are not personal papers:

  • Calendars, appointment books, schedules of activities, and so on, that record your activities as a Federal employee.
  • Drafts, background materials, notes, and other documents prepared in the course of your assigned duties, even though these are not made part of the official file.
  • Speeches given or articles written in your capacity as an agency employee or Government official.
  • Notes used to give a briefing to agency staff.

If you have any questions about specific documents or files, you should ask the Records Management Officer to review them.

Can I keep copies of my work?

Many employees want to keep copies of materials which they have drafted, reviewed, or otherwise acted upon.  You are permitted to accumulate extra copies of these documents for your own convenience provided that retention would not:

  • Diminish the official record of the agency,
  • Violate confidentiality required by national security, privacy, or other interests provided by law, or
  • Exceed normal administrative business economies.

Technically speaking, such extra copies are considered nonrecord material and not personal papers.  However, officials can arrange to take the extra convenience copies with them when they leave the agency or move to another job within the agency.

If you wish to keep copies of your work, it is much easier to make the copies on a regular basis rather than to wait until you are departing.

What's the best way to manage my personal papers?

If you keep personal papers in your office, there are three simple rules you need to follow to manage them properly:

  • Clearly designate the files as personal papers.
  • Maintain them separately from official agency records.
  • If you receive a document that contains information about both private matters and agency business, the document is a record, and the part that concerns the agency business must be made part of the official record.  There are two means of doing this.  You can immediately copy the document with the personal information deleted and treat the sanitized copy as the agency record, or extract the agency business portion and add the extract to the agency files.
For more information, see “Documenting Your Public Service” or refer to EPA National Records Management Program’s “Frequent Questions About Personal Papers.”

How do I manage personnel records?

How do I get help retiring unique agency records?

The REE Records Management Officer (RMO) maintains a small records depository in the South Building where unique agency records can be stored for a short time while they are processed before their retirement.

Records will only be accepted for temporary storage if they are:

  • Temporary but ineligible for transfer to a Federal Records Center (FRC), and ONLY if the agency is willing to commit resources for processing, maintaining, and storing the records.
  • Part of a project that will be completed within three months or less.
  • Permanent and eligible for transfer to the National Archives but have not been thoroughly indexed, if the agency is willing to commit resources, and if the indexing will be completed within three months. If the records project is not completed within the agreed time limit, including any authorized extensions, the records will be returned to the program manager.
  • Eligible for transfer to the National Agricultural Library (NAL).
  • Eligible for donation or transfer to other institutions.

If you have unique, significant agency records in your custody and need help in preparing them for transfer, contact the REE RMO. No records will be accepted without prior approval. All records must be transferred in records center boxes. For temporary records eligible for transfer to FRC storage, to NAL, or for donation, staff must create an accurate box list. Records will be described at the box and folder level unless records can be batched.

Last updated: 10/28/2005

Last Updated:

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