NAGARA Statement on the Potential Risk to Public Records During the Transition

December 15, 2020

Several weeks ago, the Chairs of various committees of the United States House of Representatives sent letters to the heads of many Federal agencies urging them to

"remind all employees and officials within your organization of their legal responsibility to take appropriate measures to collect, retain, and preserve all documents, communications, and other records in accordance with federal law, including the Federal Records Act and related regulations."

Furthermore, the National Security Archive, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the American Historical Association, and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed suit against the President and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The purpose of the suit as stated, is "to enforce the Presidential Records Act and prevent any destruction of records during the presidential transition." There is obviously great concern at this time that public records are at risk due to the actions or perceived actions of some government officials.

NAGARA represents over 1,200 professionals who are dedicated to ensuring the authenticity, reliability, integrity, and accessibility of public records. Public records are a cornerstone of American democracy, as they document the actions and decisions of elected and appointed officials. NAGARA’s membership serves the people of this country, not political parties, individuals, or private interests. Archivists and records management professionals endeavor to be unbiased stewards of the historical record. The recordkeeping apparatus of the Federal government is necessarily complex, as it comprises hundreds of agencies and hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide, but it has been constructed thoughtfully over the course of history and reflects an ongoing commitment to the preservation of and access to public records.

This recordkeeping apparatus is built upon internationally-developed and recognized standards that promote adherence to laws and good recordkeeping practices. Laws like the Presidential Records Act and others strive to protect public records against unlawful alteration, theft, and destruction. These laws are necessary, as they preserve the public’s right and ability to audit their elected government officials and their actions and hold them accountable. Public records are evidence and should be treated as such. Archivists and records managers are expected to hold themselves to the highest standards of professionalism and integrity while managing, preserving, and providing access to public records. Anything less would raise questions about the trustworthiness of the public records.

To this end, NAGARA stands behind the community of records management and archives professionals working in the Federal government during this time of transition, many of whom contributed substantially to the development and implementation of the very laws and regulations which govern the retention, management, and destruction of public records.

However, archivists and records administrators are not the only government employees with a role in the management of public records. Almost every government employee interacts with public records, and there are many opportunities for accidental loss or destruction of records, as well as intentional attempts to destroy or alter public records. Unauthorized and unlawful destruction of public records is a serious crime. NARA provides ample free online training about public laws, regulations, and established recordkeeping best practices to prevent non-compliance. NAGARA salutes all government employees who adhere to the law and fully supports efforts to ensure compliance with the law, and condemns anyone who violates the law for any reason. NAGARA encourages recordkeeping and retention decisions that are transparent and open.

Public records belong to the people. NAGARA members are devoted to managing and preserving these records for the people.