The Percentage of Permanent Records in the National Archives: A 1985 Article Revisited

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Thirty-five years ago the National Archives had a space problem. It still does, even with the opening of the National Archives at College Park, MD in 1994 (known to staff and researchers as Archives II or just AII). And thirty-five years ago researchers, particularly historians, often complained that the National Archives appraised too many records as disposable. To some extent, they still make the same complaints.

To address the space issue and researcher complaints, I wrote an article at the time for the Organization of American Historians attempting to address its members’ concerns about the National Archives as well as to share with my colleagues on staff information that I thought would be useful to them (1).

What follows is an abbreviated version of the article (just as I wrote it in 1985) with some footnotes added to explain or clarify certain points. As the reader will note, things, while still the same in many respects, have certainly changed during the past thirty-five years, especially as they relate to technological advances. Remember, in reading this, it was published thirty-five years ago.

The question of what percentage of federal records are, or will be, permanent archives has not been fully addressed. During the past fifty years, since the establishment of the National Archives, various percentages have been offered as accurate or as close approximations. Most are nothing more than educated guesses or estimates. A few seemed to have been based upon some actual data, such as limited surveys. Until several years ago, two to five percent was generally considered an accurate estimate. Now, federal archivists generally cite a two to three percent figure. How did they arrive at these figures? I am not certain, but it appears that someone came up with the idea of determining the percentage of permanent records by simply comparing the permanent National Archives holdings to the volume of federal records existing at any given time. By this method, the percentage of permanent records works out to 2.49 in 1940; 3.95 in 1950; 3.73 in 1960; 3.50 in 1970 and, 3.63 in 1980. Such calculations, however, do not take into consideration the total volume of records created or the volume subsequently destroyed. They also do not include the volume of records appraised as permanent but not yet accessioned into the National Archives.

While working with the NARS (2) Appraisal and Disposition Task Force during the winter of 1982-1983, I had an opportunity to try to determine what percentage of federal records was retained permanently. No one can know for sure what the actual percentage is, for several reasons, including the fact that adequate figures for the total volume of records created before 1930 do not exist. Nevertheless, it appears that from 1789 to 1930, the federal government created no more than five million cubic feet of records; an amount it now creates in ten months. Another thirty million cubic feet of records were created between 1930 and 1950, And some 130 million cubic feet of records were created between 1950 and 1983. Thus, before 1983, about 165 million cubic feet of records were created.(3) Since the National Archives has legal custody of 1.4 million cubic feet of archives in 1983, one could state that .85 percent of all federal records created had become permanent. This does not take into consideration, however, the volume of permanently scheduled records then in the custody of the federal agencies and federal records centers. Adding the some 450,000 cubic feet of permanently scheduled records in the federal records centers to those already in the National Archives, the percentage of permanent records in NARS’s custody in 1983 was 1.12.

gray tone drawing of a building with cars in front of it.
Sketch of the Federal Records Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, NAID 74226860. One of NARA’s regional archives facilities.

In 1983, NARS had legal and physical custody of about forty percent of the federal records then in existence. The other sixty percent was in the custody of various agencies. Determining what percentage of these was permanently scheduled is difficult, in part because agencies are not required to report such data (4). There are, however, two ways of attempting to determine their percentage of permanently scheduled records. One is by looking at the holdings of the federal records centers. At the end of Fiscal Year 1982, slightly more than two percent of their holdings were scheduled as permanent. Because agencies destroy many records having short retention periods rather than sending them to a federal records center, the two percentage figure is probably two high. The other method, with the same shortcoming, is to look at the percent of permanently scheduled records being retired annually to the federal records centers. During Fiscal Years 1981 and 1982, the percentage was 1.89. Using that percentage against the then 20.7 million cubic feet of records in agency custody, some 391,000 cubic feet of records would be scheduled to become permanent archives. Adding that volume to the 1.9 million cubic feet of permanent or permanently scheduled records in NARS’s custody, there would have been 2.3 million cubic feet of permanent records in 1983. Thus, by using this volume, one could state that 1.39 percent of all federal records created between 1789 and 1982 was, or would become, permanent archives.

The 1.39 percentage is, however, somewhat misleading, because it represents volume and not information. In 1983, there were some thirty-five million cubic feet of paper records in existence.  There was also the equivalent of at least 100 million cubic feet of records on some twelve million reels of computer tape and millions of microforms. If these nontextual media equivalents were used in the calculation, the percentage of permanent records figures would become meaningless. In the future, as more information is placed on nontextual media, we will all have to stop thinking in terms of the percentage of permanent records and begin thinking in terms of the amount of permanent information. In some respects, we already should be doing this. Be that as it may, there will continue to be large volumes of permanent paper records being created and accessioned into the National Archives for at least the next thirty years.

Assuming that 1.39 percent of federal records become permanent archives, what does this mean for the National Archives and for those using its holdings? First of all, it means that 98.61 percent of federal records are destroyed. This could be frightening to those who use federal records in their research. They may believe that too much of the raw data of history, the grist of their mill, is being destroyed. What perhaps they do not appreciate is the volume of records being retained permanently. During the first four years of this decade the federal government created an average of 5.6 million cubic feet of records annually. If 1.39 percent is retained permanently, that represents a volume of 78,000 cubic feet of records, or about 200 million pages of documents. That is enough to fill up the main National Archives building in under twelve years.  Unfortunately, that building is already full. But that is another issue.

Undoubtedly, records will be destroyed that some researchers would have liked to use and some will be retained that no one will ever use. Having been involved in federal records disposition activities the past six years, including participating in the appraisal of the records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (5) and working with the NARS Appraisal and Disposition Task Force, I believe NARS has made every attempt to retain records with values sufficient to warrant retaining—for the historian, the citizen, and the government. This means, on one hand, appraising as permanent those series of federal records that provide evidence of how the government was organized and functioned, and on the other hand, identifying those series that contain information on persons, things, and phenomena that will be useful to researchers. Each agency’s records are appraised with no set percentage to be retained. This results in keeping over half of the records of some agencies and almost none for others. It is true, as Theodore Schellenberg pointed out in his Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques (Chicago, 1956, pp. 152-153), that any scholar can find a plausible justification for keeping almost every record that was ever created. But as he also observed, not everything is worth keeping, nor does the federal government have the funds to keep everything. What funds it does have should only be spent on records of enduring value.

Despite limited funds, staff, and space, the National Archives does appraise large volumes of records as permanent (having enduring or sufficient value). It may be dilatory in accessioning them into its holdings and making them available to researchers because of the above-mentioned limitations, but it certainly does not allow records of enduring value to be appraised as disposable. In a report I prepared for the NARS Appraisal and Disposition Task Force, I calculated that the National Archives will be faced with accessioning about 37,000 cubic feet of records annually during the next twenty years. Most of these records were created between 1955 and 1975 when two to four million cubic feet of records were being created annually. Taking three million as an average, this would mean that 1.23 percent of the records created during that period is permanent. Although most scholars would consider this a small amount, it is not small for the National Archives. It is a percentage and volume to reckon with, especially considering storage space and preservation costs.

street view of the National Archives building showing traffic in front of it.
Pennsylvania Avenue Side of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC (NAID 102252882).

Although most of the federal regional archives have space to handle the permanent records that will be offered to them during the next twenty years, the National Archives facilities in Washington, D.C., do not. For them one percent means a lot. The newly created National Archives and Records Administration has five alternatives to remedy its space problem. The first would be to let agencies keep and service records that have been appraised as permanent. This alternative, while plausible for machine-readable records, which involve great costs, has more disadvantages than advantages, including making records less accessible and increasing the likelihood of records inadvertently being lost or destroyed. The second would be to get more space. This is unlikely during the current period of austerity (6). The third would be to increase internal appraisal efforts, this is, destroying accessioned records which no longer have sufficient value to warrant retaining. From 1938 to 1983 NARS destroyed approximately 275,000 cubic feet of its holdings, or sixteen percent of the records it accessioned initially. Unfortunately, internal disposal, while necessary in any archival institution, is only a stop-gap solution to a space problem. The fourth alternative is greater selectivity in the choice of records for permanent retention. This alternative, while unpopular with many researchers, is necessary, especially with respect to large series with mixed values. In the short-run, making a selection of files within a series, as was done in many instances with the records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is an expensive proposition, but in the long-run both the National Archives and researchers will benefit (7). The last alternative, while expensive, is probably the most cost-effective solution. It is the accumulation of more information on nontextual media, such as microfiche and optical and video disks.

Whatever alternatives the National Archives adopts, handling the one percent of permanent records will be expensive. It is often stated that a society cannot put a price on its archives. Unfortunately, archives are expensive, and only limited funds have been allocated for America’s federal archives; annually about the same amount that it costs the military to purchase and operate a fighter plane for a year. Thus, rather than criticizing the National Archives for only retaining one percent of records permanently as archives, researchers should be more concerned about where the permanent records are going to be maintained, on what media, and the amount of funding given to the National Archives to properly accession, arrange, describe, preserve, and reference its holdings. These are the important issues facing the National Archives and Records Administration and those who do research in federal archives.

At the bottom it was noted “The article represents his personal views and does not reflect official NARA policy.” The same is true today.

Hopefully this blog will provoke thought on the part of the readers regarding the appraisal, disposition, storage, and accessibility of federal records and archives.


1) “When One Percent Means A Lot: the Percentage of Permanent Records in the National Archives,” Organization of American Historians Newsletter, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May 1985), pp. 20-21.

2) NARS was the abbreviation for the National Archives and Records Service, a component of the General Services Administration (GSA) from 1949 to April 1, 1985, when independence from GSA took place and the National Archives and Records Administration was established as an independent agency.

3) For the background on the growth and disposition of federal records and archives see my articles: “An Administrative History of the Disposal of Federal Records, 1789-1949,” Provenance: Journal of the Society of Georgia Archivists, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 1985); “A Brief History of the Growth of Federal Government Records, Archives, and Information, 1789-1985,” Government Publications Review, Vol. 13, No. 4 (1986); “An Administrative History of the Disposal of Federal Records, 1950-1985,” Provenance: Journal of the Society of Georgia Archivists, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 1986); and, “Federal Field Archives: Past, Present, and Future,” Government Information Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1987).

4) Until the early 1980s, federal agencies were required to submit annually to the National Archives a Standard Form 136 (Annual Report of Records Holdings), reporting various information about their records. Unfortunately, the Reagan Administration, in its efforts to reduce reporting burdens on agencies, eliminated the SF-136 reporting requirement.

5) For information about the appraisal of the records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation see my article “The FBI Records Appraisal,” The Midwestern Archivist, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Fall 1988).

6) The National Archives building at College Park, the largest archival facility in the United States, was constructed in 1994. It did not take long for it to be filled up to capacity and additional shelving installed.

7) Regarding this matter my NARA colleague Bruch Ambacher and I wrote something about it thirty years ago: “Archival Sampling: A Method of Appraisal and a Means of Retention,” Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference Technical Leaflet No. 8, 1992 .

One thought on “The Percentage of Permanent Records in the National Archives: A 1985 Article Revisited

  1. “Unfortunately, archives are expensive, and only limited funds have been allocated for America’s federal archives; annually about the same amount that it costs the military to purchase and operate a fighter plane for a year.”

    It’s a sad state when a nation prides itself more for its armament holdings than its historical holdings. Hopefully, tomorrow’s leaders will have a different view – but they need to know.