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Holes in History: The Dept of Interior request to destroy records

[Editor’s note: please scroll to the end of this post for a sample letter to submit to NARA. Thanks!]

[Update: 10/30: I added another point about disposition authority. JRJ]

Remember, we have until November 26, 2018, to make comments to the National Archives. (Be sure to say that you’re referring to DAA-0048-2015-0003.)

  • [email protected]
  • fax: 301-837-3698
  • NARA (ACRA), 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park MD 20740-6001.

  • Last week, Russ Kick announced that The Department of the Interior (DOI) was requesting permission from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to destroy documents about oil and gas leases, mining, dams, wells, timber sales, marine conservation, fishing, endangered species, non-endangered species, critical habitats, land acquisition, and lots more. The request includes documents from every agency within the DOI, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and others. Please read Kick’s whole post for context and comments.

    This is a massive proposal. As Kick notes:

    This covers already-existing documents going back more than 50 years. Thousands of cubic feet of paper documents. Gigabytes of digital documents. Besides existing documents, as usual the proposed schedule will also apply to all future documents created in these categories (whether on paper or born digital).

    Using FOIA, Kick has obtained and posted:

    Since several people (including me) have publicized this on academic and librarian listservs, I’ve received quite a few requests for comment and context by journalists. Many people (including myself) thought this was another case of indiscriminate and politically motivated records destruction. This is an easy conclusion to reach given the ICE request this spring to destroy documents on detainee deaths and rapes (which has still not been resolved!) and the leaked Department of Justice memo advising silence and delaying tactics on Fish & Wildlife FOIA requests, and all the todo about the loss of environmental data and government information in general coming from this administration. (Check out Patrice McDermott’s book Who needs to know? the state of public access to federal government information for more history and context on this very important issue).

    With so many journalists, academics, librarians, and members of the public expressing alarm, NARA posted a response on its Records Express blog saying that the request is not unusual, that DOI is not asking to immediately destroy large numbers of records, that the request is just part of normal procedures, and that NARA and the DOI have been working on this particular schedule for more than two years.

    NARA staff also wrote to Kick to explain that they had sent him an incorrect version of the DOI request and crosswalk that incorrectly listed seven authorities as temporary when they should have been listed as permanent!

    After NARA staff sent out the requested schedule, we determined that we provided the wrong versions of the documents in which seven permanent items were incorrectly identified in the schedule and crosswalk as long-term temporary. Below we have summarized the difference between the versions you were sent and the correct versions:

    Item DAA-0048-2015-0003-0018 originally listed ten superseded authorities in total. Seven of these superseded authorities were incorrectly listed as temporary but should have been identified as permanent under item DAA-0048-2015-0003-0019:

    • BLM Master Title Plat Master (MTP) – NC1-49-85-2 / 17/1/a/1
    • BLM Supplemental Use Plat Masters – NC1-49-85-2 / 17/1/b/1
    • BLM Historical Indexes – NC1-49-85-2 / 17/4/a/1
    • BLM TAMP Project History Files – N1-49-91-2 / 1
    • BLM TAMP Master Title and Use Plats – N1-49-91-2 / 2/5/d/2
    • BLM TAMP Historical Indexes – N1-49-91-2 / 6/c
    • BoR Settlement and Land Entries – N1-115-94-6 / LND-7.00

    Only these three superseded authorities remained temporary under item DAA-0048-2015-0003-0018:

    • Land Acquisition Case Files – N1-115-97-1, LND-3.00
    • Sale, Transfer, Exchange, and Disposal of Reclamation-owned Land to Others – N1-115-94-6, LND-5.00
    • Land Classification – N1-115-94-6, LND-10.00

     

    So which is it? Is this a gigantic destruction-of-records request for which there needs to be a massive and immediate public response? Or is it a “nothing to see here” normal communication between an executive agency and NARA to manage executive agency records? Or both?

    As Kick said in his original post, this is “part of the standard process of determining when federal agencies can destroy their documents” but this process is too often overlooked by the general public. He characterizes the process as “happening in the shadows” and he is “dragging the process into the light” by FOIA-requesting and posting every single agency request and NARA appraisal on his altgov2.org website.

    “Notifications” of new schedules are posted in the Federal Register. But even NARA admits in its blog post that the Records Schedule Review Process “can seem mysterious” to those who do not work in records management and who do not have a good understanding of the records scheduling process. NARA’s Records Management Handbook describes the process of appraising records as “complex and challenging.”

    NARA has extended the comment period until November 26, 2018 because of the increased interest in this particular schedule and to promote greater transparency and public comment on the DOI request. NARA has also posted PDF versions of the documents on its own website:

    NARA’s official response to this rather opaque process and this complex request makes it seem like it is business as usual and that there is nothing for us to be alarmed about. At least one organization, the National Coalition for History, takes NARA at its word and says that “There is no evidence that they have acted in anything other than a spirit of good faith and professionalism.” And in some respects, I guess that’s right. However, what I’m learning as I dig into this is that:

    1. Many more records across the Federal government are listed as “temporary” than I originally thought. Only between 1% and 5% of federal records are ever designated “permanent.” NARA’s Handbook says, “Most Federal records are temporary” (p.12). While most records designated “temporary” are innocuous, some important records seem to be incorrectly labeled that way, too. For example, records referencing the lawsuit Cobell v. Salazar, the largest class-action lawsuit in history against the US government over Indian trust funds, was filed under Energy & Minerals rather than BIA for some reason and labeled “temporary.” Was this done on purpose? I don’t know, but on their face, those files would certainly be of high research value. The fact that DOI deemed them “temporary” makes me wonder about their decision-making process and how closely NARA follows its own Strategic Directions: Appraisal Policy. I also talked with a former county supervisor in Mendocino, CA who thought that the destruction of some of those records from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) could make it easier to open up more areas to logging and off-shore oil extraction because the historical precedent would be erased. The destruction of many of these records will have far-reaching negative effects on the FOIA system which is supposed to protect public access to agency records. We won’t be able to FOIA what’s not preserved!

    2. This request from DOI is very large and there are some arcane items buried within the request that raise questions/red flags. The change of “disposition authority”, buried within this very large request, is perhaps the most troubling part of the request and raises concerns/questions for me:

      Methodology:

      This change to a departmental schedule, from individual bureau schedules, moves disposition authority for Record Groups 022 (FWS), 049 (BLM), 057 (USGS), 075 (BIA), 079 (NPS), 115 (BOR), 471 (OSMRE), 473 (BSEE), and 589 (BOEMRE) to 048. (which is Office of the Secretary (OS) – Record Group 048)

      –from DOI’s Request for Records Disposition Authority

      What this is saying is that authority to make records destruction requests (to NARA—no records may be destroyed without the permission of the Archivist) out of the hands of these bureaus/offices (BLM, USGS etc) and puts that authority solely in the office of the Secretary of Interior, a cabinet-level political appointee. This could overly politicize records retention going forward. (Thanks to Patrice McDermott for pointing this one out to me!)

    3. That the very opaque and complicated records scheduling process is not as public and transparent as it needs to be, and that this can make it easy for decisions to be more easily based on “Adequate from the standpoint of legal rights and accountability” or “significant actions of Federal officials” rather than the criteria that their appraisal policy defines as records documenting the rights of citizens, the actions of Federal officials, or the documenting the national experience. At the very least, I would hope that this situation would cause a change in NARA’s regular procedures to make finding these draft schedule requests and commenting on them much easier and more publicly available.

    4. That, while NARA gives generic guidelines for the types of records that should be permanently retained (Handbook “Appendix C. Appraisal Guidelines for Permanent Records”), the application of those guidelines is left to political appointees in individual agencies. Those political appointees may not always have preservation as their highest priority. (Indeed, the current administration’s policies with regard to changing, deleting, and altering information on public-facing websites makes me question whether their intentions go beyond benign neglect and extend to attempts to actively destroy useful records.) While agencies must get their decisions approved by NARA, it is not clear if NARA has the resources or subject expertise to investigate and challenge those decisions adequately. I believe that NARA would wholeheartedly support more public engagement with the records-scheduling process. They need the help of the eventual end-users of these records. They need us to help them identify records that have value for research or public policy history and when and where the agencies’ schedules fall short.

    5. We do not have to view the current process as nefarious political machinations to delete history. This is just the regular bureaucratic process grinding away. We don’t even have to attribute corrupt-intent to the individuals in the agencies who are writing these proposals. Lawrence Lessig, in his new book, America, Compromised, suggests that institutions can be “institutionally corrupt” without individuals being corrupt in the bribery-taking way we usually think of as corruption. Preservation of history and precedence need to be the primary reasons for retaining records. These need to be active, first-order motives behind records schedules, not second-hand side effects of administrative motives that reach the low-bar of being “Adequate from the standpoint of legal rights and accountability.”

    The system of records retention is designed to accept public comment and the DOI proposal gives us an excellent example of the need to publicize and promote such informed public participation in the process. If you or the communities you serve depend on the records of an agency, it is your responsibility and your right to delve into the agency’s schedules, track the announcements of scheduling changes in the Federal Register, and let NARA know when and why files deemed “temporary” or “having little or no research value” are important and why they need to be preserved.

    My hope is that, in this particular case, the public responses will include suggestions for making these decisions more transparent, open, and public. I would also like to see suggestions for some sort of process that would allow records deemed temporary to be tranferred to libraries and archives instead or being destroyed. NARA already has a procedure for naming outside institutions as “affiliated archives.”

    This should be seen as a teaching moment for both NARA and the academic/library/archives communities. Please feel free to forward this to any listservs you know that are currently talking about this issue. Those who do not save history are doomed to repeat it!

    Remember, we have until November 26, 2018, to make comments to the National Archives. (Be sure to say that you’re referring to DAA-0048-2015-0003.)

  • [email protected]
  • fax: 301-837-3698
  • NARA (ACRA), 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park MD 20740-6001.

  • To help with the commenting process, below is a sample letter to submit comments. Please feel free to copy any or all of it for your own comment submission.

    National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
    [email protected] ///
    fax: 301-837-3698 ///
    NARA (ACRA), 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park MD 20740-6001.

    Subject: In regards to Dept of the Interior: Records Destruction Request #DAA-0048-2015-0003

    To whom it may concern,

    It has come to my attention that the Department of Interior (DoI) has submitted to NARA a draft Request for Records Disposition Authority (DAA-0048-2015-0003) asking for permission to destroy records going back 50 years as well as date forward from every agency within the Interior Department, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and others. These important records touch on a range of subjects including oil and gas leases, mining, dams, wells, timber sales, marine conservation, fishing, endangered species, non-endangered species, critical habitats, land acquisition, etc. In NARA’s appraisal memo, most of these records have been wrongly defined as “temporary” with the justification that they have “little to no research value.”

    I write to strongly object to such a large-scale disposition of important public records without adequate public input and urge the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to reconsider the proposed records retention schedule relating to the disposition of this wide swath of important Department of the Interior records. Additionally, I strongly recommend that NARA deny the proposed change of “disposition authority” from individual bureaus (USGS, BLM, BOER etc) to the office of the Secretary of Interior, a cabinet-level political appointee which could overly politicize records retention across the entire agency going forward.

    —————————-

    Records of particular interest to me that should be reappraised with an eye toward permanent retention are …

    WRITE HERE ABOUT ITEM(S) OF PARTICULAR INTEREST FROM THE NARA APPRAISAL MEMO OR DOI CROSSWALK

    –https://altgov2.org/wp-content/uploads/DAA-0048-2015-0003_Appraisal_Memo.pdf

    –https://altgov2.org/wp-content/uploads/DAA-0048-2015-0003_10-24-18_Crosswalk_correct-version.pdf
    —————————–

    —————————-

    I would also recommend that NARA implement new ways to make the schdeduling process more open and transparent to the public …

    IN THIS PARAGRAPH, WRITE ANY SUGGESTIONS FOR MAKING THIS PROCESS MORE OPEN AND TRANSPARENT.

    —————————-

    NARA’s own appraisal policy notes that NARA’s mission is to ensure “for the Citizen and the Public Servant, for the President and the Congress and the Courts ready access to essential evidence.” These Department of Interior records comprise the very core essential evidence of the National experience. As such, I request that NARA revisit their proposed appraisal and justification and appraise this request in line with NARA’s appraisal objectives defined in its own appraisal policy.

    Thank you for your attention to this matter.

    Sincerely

    NAME
    ORGANIZATIONAL AFFILIATION
    ADDRESS
    PHONE#
    EMAIL

    CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


    9 Comments

    1. I’ve been getting quite a few emails and phone calls asking what can be done about this. It’s critical that as many people as possible send in comments to NARA (feel free to use the sample letter above) objecting to their scheduling decision. It’s important that you list the proposed items listed in the crosswalk that you feel most strongly about.

      Besides commenting, anyone who feels so moved should FOIA records listed in the DoI crosswalk. Easy as pie with foia DOT gov or MuckRock.com. FOIA is fun! Then donate FOIA’d records to a library, archive, Internet Archive or other public organization which can keep the records for the long term and make them publicly available.

      Over the longer term, there is a need for reform of the records scheduling process and the Federal Records Act. Quite a few library professional associations and government transparency organizations share interests in that (ALA, AALL, Open the Government, Sunlight Foundation etc). For more on that, check out the series of blog posts written by the ALA Washington Office. NARA is working on some of the administrative reforms mentioned in the posts, but over the long term, associations need to keep pushing the agency and Congress to make changes — and association members need to keep pushing their association leaders to keep the heat on in order to bring about change!

      https://www.districtdispatch.org/2017/12/keeping-public-info-public/
      https://www.districtdispatch.org/2017/12/keeping-public-information-public-records-laws-federal-websites/
      https://www.districtdispatch.org/2017/12/records-scheduling-retention-destruction/

    2. I love how you all think that there are a ton of archivists and librarians out there looking to flood their institutions, all of which generally have far fewer resources than NARA to begin with, with the massive volume of federal records that their fellow professional archivists at NARA has judged to be of temporary value.

      Most archives and libraries have a hard enough time keeping up with the records that are already within their mission.

      Every professional archivist out there understands that not everything can or should be kept. That understanding is also written into the laws that govern NARA’s acitivites.
      Appraisal, that is, deciding what to keep and not to keep, is core to the archival profession. There is a reason why Society of American Archivists and the National Coalition for history, while offering suggestions to improve the notification process, have not criticized that fact that record schedules exist and that most records are temporary.

      Furthermore, despite Mr. Kick’s characterization of the process as happening “In the shadows” the fact that we are even having this conversation is because NARA makes available information about its scheduling process.

      There is most likely room to take advantage of new technology to improve upon a system designed before the internet. However even making those change will require going through the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, to including posting any proposed changes in the Federal Register. It requires studying and evaluating multiple options, acquisition and testing of new IT tools, etc. etc. None of this happens quickly. Consider that the schedules that you are are discussing have been in progress for two years and still have many steps left to go before approval. Changing how schedules are published and publicized could take just as long.

      https://peelarchivesblog.com/2018/04/04/what-do-archivists-keep-or-not/

      http://historycoalition.org/2018/10/27/controversy-over-proposed-destruction-of-interior-department-records-explained/

      https://www2.archivists.org/nara-corrects-records-schedule-extends-comment-period-on-dept-of-interior-records

      • Hi Andrew. thanks for your comment. Instead of framing this as an either/or (either burden archives with unnecessary and unwanted files, or abdicate any role in making sure the right stuff gets preserved for the right reasons), I hope we can agree that there is a middle ground.

        I agree with you that not everything can or should be preserved in perpetuity. But the DoI crosswalk sure calls into question the DoI’s perspective on what should be “permanent” and what should be “temporary.” I highlighted 2 document classes that I would think on their face would be permanent that were deemed not to be of research value. There are many more. This is a problem.

        Another problem — perhaps the biggest problem — is that the DoI request seeks to change and centralize the scheduling process by taking it away from professional archivists with subject expertise within those sub-agencies (BLM, BOER, BIA etc.) and moving it to the office of the secretary, a political cabinet-level post. It is hard to imagine how centralizing the huge amount of work into a single office will make the process better, more efficient, or more accurate.

        I appreciate Mr Kick’s efforts to make this process more transparent and public. it’s a great opportunity for archivists, librarians and the public to work together to improve on both this particular schedule as well as the procedures, regulations and legislation governing the process.

        • James, I agree I was oversimplifying your comment and I apologize for that. I hope you can also understand why even your carefully parsed term of “institutionally corrupt” can be off putting and lead to a less favorable reading of your attempt at constructive input. Your “a great opportunity for archivists, librarians and the public to work together to improve” statement is much more positive in tone.

          I hope you can also understand why your statement that groups should ‘let NARA know when and why files deemed “temporary” or “having little or no research value” are important and why they need to be preserved.’ might be interpreted as a blanket statement about all records scheduled as temporary and not specific sets of records.

          I also agree that records scheduling is a complex process and that input from the all the stakeholders is essential. Motivating the stakeholders to provide that input is a challenge, one I hope that can be solved without the alarmist headlines that I saw in from many sources about this particular matter.

          “is that the DoI request seeks to change and centralize the scheduling process by taking it away from professional archivists with subject expertise within those sub-agencies (BLM, BOER, BIA etc.) and moving it to the office of the secretary, a political cabinet-level post.”

          The purpose behind the consolidation is explained in the appraisal menu. “The DRS is a joint endeavor by all DOI bureau agencies to streamline scheduling of all the current 200 records schedules with over 2,330 retention periods into several Departmental Records Schedules with 37 functions and 189 retention periods schedules. DOI surveyed their schedules and found that there was extensive duplication across bureau schedules for similar record series. The many number of schedules led to confusion in implementation, and a decision was made to consolidate scheduling under one Record Group (RG 0048).”

          A comparison might be made to the General Records Schedules, which was implemented to prevent unnecessary duplication. A comparison can also be made to the military services, where, for example, most Army records are covered under under “AU” disposition authorities even though they might cover numerous different organizations with records that will go into diverse record groups

          “https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/rcs/schedules/index.html?dir=/departments/department-of-defense/department-of-the-army/rg-au

          Scheduling under RG 48, is something of a placeholder for a record schedule with Department wide application, as there is no “Department of Interior” record group. It does not mean that the Secretary is personally writing the records or that all future record management will be done by the Secretary or his immediate aides.

          While I’m not intimately familiar with DOI records management, I strongly suspect that you will find that the people writing these schedules on the DOI side are professionals in the Office of the Chief Information Officer, not political staff immediately subordinate to the Secretary. I suspect you will also find that each agency continues to have record managers responsible for interpreting and executing the record schedules as they apply to their agency. You may have noticed in the appraisal memo that it states “Upon approval of this schedule, all Federal Record Center, Annual Move, and Direct Offer interactions will continue to be broken out according to the assigned bureau Record Group number.”

          https://www.doi.gov/ocio/policy-mgmt-support/information-and-records-management/about-rmp

    3. A closer look at the signatory information on the schedule shows that the persons involved on the DOI side were primary

      Edwin McCeney, Departmental Records Manager, Office of the Secretary – Office of the Chief Information Officer,

      John Langsdorf, Records Management Specialist, Office of the Secretary – National Business Center IMB

      David Alspach, OS Records Officer, Office of the Secretary – OCIO

      So based on the signatory information, I think I was correct in my speculation that the decision makers on the DOI side are record managers in OCIO, which though subordinate to the Office of the Secretary is not necessarily going to be political appointees.

      For example David Alspach, listed as the federal agency records officer of Department of the Interior, Office of the Secretary on NARA’s site. https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/agency/departments/interior.html and Departmental Records Officer here https://www.doi.gov/ocio/policy-mgmt-support/information-and-records-management/records/contacts has been working for the federal government in the fields of IT Management and Records and Information Management at least since 2010, and possibly earlier at pay grades too low to be reported here. https://www.federalpay.org/employees/office-of-the-secretary-of-the-interior/alspach-david-d

      The Information Management and Technology Division director has been in the federal government for 21 years. https://www.doi.gov/ocio/about/thomas-dabolt

      • Thanks for the additional information Andrew. I’m glad that the people making the decision on this schedule seem to be career records managers. I think what worries folks about the shift in authority to the secretary’s office is that this is one more place where people who do not necessarily have the public’s best interests at heart have an opportunity to limit records of the workings of their agency. Ever since FOIA act was passed in 1967, there have been bad actors trying to limit access. See “Less Access to Less Information by and about the US Govt” as well as Patrice McDermott’s book “Who Needs To Know?” among others.

    4. I got a nice note from a NARA staffer today. The staffer said that NARA is actively working on a way to routinely post schedules and appraisals as soon as the Federal Register notice goes up, as well as a way to allow people to comment directly online. The staffer also noted that all final approved schedules are available online to serve as tools for FOIA requesters and other researchers in the Records Control Schedule Repository. If you have ideas for streamlining and making this process more publicly accessible, please add those ideas to your comment. The goal is to make the whole records scheduling process better!

    5. I’m so glad that a couple of digital library organizations are discussing this and pulling together information and people to get their heads around this scheduling request. Thanks to Matt Price from Environmental Data Governance Initiative (EDGI) and Margaret Janz from the Digital Library Federation’s Government Records Transparency and Accountability working group for sharing the organizing documents below.

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