April 24, 1998
Naval Research Laboratory Records: Statement by John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States
On November 21, 1997, I ordered an inquiry into the destruction of some naval laboratory records. I have now received a report. I want to thank Deputy Archivist of the United States Lewis Bellardo, whom I asked to oversee the inquiry, and to all who worked with him on it. From their report, which I am making available to anyone interested, I conclude the following:
- Established procedures were correctly followed in the disposal of these records.
- Nonetheless, records of historical value were destroyed.
- Therefore significant changes need to be made, and will be.
I have already taking action to prevent further loss. Earlier I froze action on such records pending the outcome of the inquiry. I am now extending that freeze while we re-examine the criteria we use for appraising scientific R&D records and consider specific recommendations in the report.
But the action I am taking to protect valuable records does not stop there. The Strategic Plan that we adopted for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) long before the naval records issue arose calls for us to re-examine our entire process for appraising and scheduling the disposition of records. Goal I.B. of our Plan commits us to "work with agencies to make our current scheduling and appraisal processes more effective and timely." To help meet that goal, the Plan specifies, among NARAís targets for fiscal year 1999, that we will "re-engineer the processes by which Federal records overall are identified, appraised, scheduled, and tracked."
Accordingly, we have requested funds for undertaking a business-process re-engineering of the processes through which we work with federal agencies to evaluate and decide on the disposition of records, and I am delighted and grateful to say that President Clinton has requested funding for this initiative in his proposed budget for fiscal year 1999. I hope that the Congress will appropriate the funds he has requested. The nation must not lose valuable records. The case of the Navy Research Laboratory records underscores the need for the re-engineering we have proposed.
The report finds that NARAís staff, working with the Navy, correctly followed established procedures for the appraisal, scheduling, and disposal of the records in question. Nonetheless, records of archival value were destroyed. The correspondence files for that time period contained documentation that NARA appraisal staff had expected would be preserved elsewhere, but we have subsequently learned that the correspondence files were the only known source for this documentation. And although not all of the laboratory notebooks merited preservation by NARA, some would have. NRL staff and NARA staff had different understandings of how the criteria concerning the selection of laboratory notebooks would be interpreted. NARA staff interpreted the schedule to mean that only those notebooks that met all the criteria would be retained in the archives. NRL staff expected that notebooks that met any of the criteria would be retained. We will act on the reportís recommendation that these criteria be reviewed as well as the policy on application of the criteria.
The report recommends some short-term measures that I will implement to improve the processCsuch as more fully describing records in public notices of records scheduled for destruction, and sending disposal notices via certified mail to verify receipt by the originating agencies. And we will wrap the reportís longer-term recommendations into considerations to be evaluated in the re-engineering I have described above of our appraisal and scheduling process for government records as a whole. Out of that re-engineering will come, among other things, a better means for resolving conflicts when NARA staff and agency staff do not agree in evaluating records.
In requesting funds for that re-engineering, we have made the following argument to the President and the Congress:
The processes that Federal agencies and NARA use to schedule agency records are almost entirely paper-based, inefficient, and not customer oriented. NARA lacks sufficient resources to work with agencies to identify and address problems that could result in the improper maintenance or erroneous destruction of essential evidence. To address these problems, NARA is requesting in this budget proposal . . . resources [that] will enable us to protect valuable records currently at risk while moving towards strategic front-end records management to reduce risk overall.
That is our goal. Achieving it is essential. And I am committed to it.
For additional PRESS information, please contact the National Archives Public Affairs staff at (301) 837-1700 or by e-mail.