Today’s post is written by Sarah Farinholt and Meghan Ryan who work on the Accessioning team.
Ever wonder how documents get to the National Archives? Before federal records become part of the National Archives holdings, they must be accessioned. Accessioning is the process by which the National Archives takes legal and physical custody of records – it is the first step towards making records available to researchers at the National Archives.
Records come to NARA from the creating agency. This can be in the form of a Direct Offer when the records are still housed at federal entities (including agencies, such as the DIA or the EPA, committees, or other government organizations). NARA also accepts private donations from individuals or organizations, such as oral histories from the National Archives Assembly Legacy Project. However, most textual transfers come from a Federal Records Center (FRC). The Washington National Records Center (WNRC) in Suitland, Maryland, one of 17 FRCs across the nation, provides records storage for federal agencies in the Washington D.C area. As records stored at Federal Records Centers are still in the legal custody of the agency that created them, they pay the FRC a fee for use of the space. Each year federal agencies transfer tens of thousands of feet of textual records stored at Federal Records Centers to the National Archives. Statistics about these transfers can be found here.
The transfers have to be carefully documented, especially when classified records are involved. The agency submits paperwork to NARA indicating which records they would like to transfer and why. The paperwork includes a form containing the agreement to transfer records to the National Archives, including a reference to the relevant records control schedule. A records control schedule is a federally approved guideline for the disposition of different types of records (see “Rap Sheets” of Leavenworth and Alcatraz Prisons for an example). Records control schedules indicate whether records are permanent or temporary, and, if they are permanent, when they should be sent to the National Archives. For example, a records control schedule may indicate that records should be moved to NARA 20 years after the creation of the last record. If the last record was created in 2000 and it’s only 2015, you have a problem!
It is now the job of NARA accessioning staff to confirm that these records should be transferred to NARA from the custody of the agency that created them, and whether or not they should be made available for public use. Once the paperwork has been verified and approved, the records may be physically transferred to NARA.
Upon arrival at NARA, some of the boxes are X-rayed, all are checked for preservation issues, shelved in one of NARA’s many stack areas, and entered into NARA’s Holdings Management System (HMS). Unclassified and unrestricted records are available to researchers. Now processing can begin!