Better saved than sorry

NARA proposes guidelines for research records

Recommendations for preserving the records of federal research would simplify the task of appraising those records, say archivists and records officers who have reviewed the proposed guidelines.

National Archives and Records Administration officials are seeking public comment by April 28 on a draft version of the agency’s first formal appraisal guidelines for research and development (R&D) records.

R&D records document the life cycle of research projects in engineering and physical and natural sciences. Such projects generate copious records, including notebooks, research data, technical reports and financial documents.

The new guidance would supplement NARA’s appraisal policy, which classifies federal records as permanent or temporary based on their preservation value.

NARA officials frequently consulted with federal agencies and records stakeholders before writing the proposed guidelines. In late 2003, they invited scientists and engineers from several federal agencies, including NASA, and the National Institutes of Health to discuss R&D records preservation.

NARA officials visited six federal R&D facilities, including laboratories operated by the Air Force, Energy Department, Environmental Protection Agency, Army and NIH. Nancy Allard, senior policy specialist at NARA, said the recommendations that grew out of those visits are guidelines, not rules.

Sharon Evelin, an Energy records officer, said agency officials are pleased with the records guidance so far. “It’s going to help us, not hinder us,” she said.

NARA’s proposed guidelines are similar to Energy’s records disposition schedule, created in the late 1990s, to manage R&D records, Evelin said. She added that she will not submit comments to NARA because the proposed guidelines essentially mirror Energy’s procedures.

Jeanne Young, a private consultant and former archivist at the Federal Reserve Board, said NARA’s guidelines present straightforward help in an area that has been frustrating for archivists.

But the guidelines’ wording on preserving lab notebooks should be more specific, she said. Young, who used to appraise records at the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service, said several lab scientists insisted that their notebooks would be indecipherable to anyone, even themselves, after more than 20 years. She is concerned that NARA and other federal agencies will decide to keep scientists’ scribbles and other esoteric information.

However, Young said, some notebooks are archival gems. “We don’t know today who’s going to be Leonardo da Vinci 500 years from now.”

Saving the scientific method

The National Archives and Records Administration is soliciting public comment on new guidelines that would help agency officials determine the preservation value of federal research and development records. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Records of planning and policy decisions should be kept permanently.
  • Technical reports, conference proceedings and other publications that share findings are permanent. Agencies should keep them.
  • Contracting, procurement and financial records are generally temporary and can be discarded.
  • Laboratory notebooks that protect intellectual property, should be kept long-term by the agency or permanently by NARA.
  • Research data generated in large volumes may or may not need to be kept for an extended period of time depending on whether the data is difficult to replicate, supports new scientific research or provides a legal basis for health-related claims.
  • Tissue samples, slides and specimens are not records, but agencies should keep them for an extended period of time.

    — Aliya Sternstein

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