Defining Federal Records

General Principles

Records are broadly defined by statute and regulation to include all recorded information, regardless of medium or format, made or received by FAA or its agents under Federal law in connection with the transaction of public business, and either preserved or appropriate for preservation because of their administrative, legal, fiscal, or informational value.

The full definition of a Federal record as presented in the Federal Records Act is:

"...all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine-readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the U.S. Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government or because of the informational value of the data in them." (44 U.S.C. 3301, Definition of Records)


The definition of a record under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is broader than the definition under the Federal Records Act. Consult the agency FOIA web site for more information.

Other Types of Documentary Materials

General Principles

Not all documents (defined as "recorded information regardless of physical form") created and used by FAA and its agents are records. Records are only one of the three components of "documentary materials," a collective term used to refer to documents in all media created and maintained by the agency.

There are two other basic classifications of documentary materials.

  • Nonrecord materials or nonrecords

    Documentary materials created or received by FAA that do not meet the Federal Records Act definition of a record, or because they are excluded by statute.

    Examples include:

    • Library materials
    • Technical reference - materials maintained solely for convenience of reference. These may include extra copies of items created by the agency, documents received from other agencies, copies of published books or articles,and other documentation used by staff for reference.
    • Information, courtesy, or other copies of agency documents that do not require action and are not needed to document specific program activities of the receiving office.
    • Documents received that provide information but are not connected to the transaction of agency business (e.g., many e-mail messages received from listservs, news summaries or newsletters, journals or other publications, training invitations, and catalogs and other mailings from vendors).
  • Personal papers

    Personal papers are defined in Federal regulations as: "...documentary materials, or any reasonably segregable portion thereof, of a private or nonpublic character that do not relate to or have any effect upon the conduct of agency business." 36 CFR 1222.36(a)

    Examples include:

    • Documents created before entering government service;
    • Private materials brought into, created or received in the office that were not created or received in the course of transacting government business;
    • Work-related personal documents that are not used in the transaction of government business.


Documents that are clearly nonrecord materials or personal papers should be managed as such and should not be included in agency recordkeeping systems. However, staff should be aware that nonrecord materials are subject to FOIA, and any items claimed as personal papers may be subject to review for potential disclosure.

An individual's "working files" are not personal papers. If individuals wish to have copies of the materials they worked on, they need to make extra copies for themselves. These copies must be filed separately from agency records.

Additional guidance can be found at:

How to Determine if a Document is a Federal Record

General Principles

agency employees are responsible for determining whether a document is a Federal record, nonrecord material, or a personal paper -- and for managing that document accordingly. Employees are responsible for providing detailed guidance to their agents on this matter.

To qualify as a Federal record under the Federal Records Act, a document must pass two tests:

  1. It is made or received in the course of business, and
  2. It is preserved or appropriate for preservation because it is evidence of agency activities (as described above) or has sufficient informational value to warrant preservation.

Documents that do not pass these two tests are either nonrecord materials or personal papers. Allowing for those exceptions, most documents created or received on government time, using government equipment, and in connection with the transaction of government business will meet the first test. Generally, a document meets the first test for a Federal record if one of the following conditions apply:

  • The office/person created it in the course of business.
  • The office/person received it for action.
  • The office needs it to document its activities.
  • The office was made responsible for maintaining it.

The second test is more difficult to apply. In the Federal Records Act and the implementing regulations, the following categories of materials are identified as the principal ones for which extensive documentation must be preserved to document critical agency activities.

  • Records that document the formulation and execution of basic policies and decisions and the taking of necessary actions.
  • Records that document important meetings.
  • Records that facilitate action by agency officials and their successors.
  • Records that make possible a proper scrutiny by the Congress or by duly authorized agencies of the Government.
  • Records that protect the financial, legal, and other rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the Government's actions.

The agency's official files for all of its activities must contain "adequate and proper documentation" of how the agency arrived at its decisions. The more important the decision, the more complete the record must be. In many cases, specific guidance exists as to what types of records need to be maintained for critical agency activities. Critical agency activities are those that are required by statute or regulation, involve the legal or financial rights of the Government or citizens, or directly support important administrative functions or mission-related activities. Records of such activities need to be more complete than those documenting other activities. Examples of areas in which extensive documentation should be retained include:

  • Rulemaking
  • Guidance to the regulated community
  • Policy development
  • Budget development
  • Enforcement and compliance activities
  • All types of permitting activities
  • All mission-related activities required by statute
  • All auditable activities
  • Management of extramural resources
  • Scientific research and publication
  • Activities of the Federal Advisory Committees

Official agency activities that are not included in these lists, or that don't qualify as mission-critical, still will require some form of documentation, even if only for a brief period of time. agency programs and managers can assist individuals in determining what records are needed for adequate and proper documentation of activities by issuing recordkeeping requirements. These recordkeeping requirements should identify what types of documents need to be included in the file and which ones should be discarded.

Individuals should remember that the goal of recordkeeping is to clearly document how and why an action took place without creating or maintaining any extra documentation that is not necessary for that purpose.

Even if a document qualifies as a Federal record, it may only have to be retained a short period of time, because it does not contribute to the long-term adequate and proper documentation of the organization, function, policies, decisions, procedures, or essential transactions of the program or the agency. See the next section for examples.


Guidance on determining whether a document is a Federal record is presented as a series of steps, each consisting of one or more questions and appropriate guidance depending upon the answers. These steps are summarized in Part 5 of this document.

Step 1 - Determine whether specific guidance exists.

agency employees should determine whether more specific guidance exists on what types of documents need to be created and retained for the activity in which they and their agents are engaged. If that guidance exists, it supersedes these general procedures and should be followed. Guidance may exist in the following types of documents:

  • Recordkeeping requirements
  • File plans, checklists, or manuals
  • Records schedules

Actions based on results of step 1:

  • If specific guidance exists and the type of document is mentioned in that guidance, the guidance should be followed.
  • If no specific procedures exist, or if the type of document at hand is not clearly covered by the procedures, proceed to Step 2.

Step 2 - Determine whether the document is part of essential documentation.

This step consists of two questions concerning the potential value of the document as part of essential documentation of agency activities.

  1. Does this document directly contribute to an understanding of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, or essential transactions of the agency? OR
  2. Does this document pertain to an activity that involves the legal or financial rights of the Government or persons directly affected by the agency's activities?

Actions based on step 2:

  • If the answer to either question is yes, the document should be included in the official file for that activity.
  • If the answer to both questions is no, or if the answer to both questions is not clearly yes or no, proceed to step 3.

Step 3 - Determine whether the document clearly falls into one of the categories of nonrecord materials.

There are two questions for this step.

  1. Does the document qualify as nonrecord material as defined above?
  2. Does the document clearly qualify as a personal paper?

Actions based on step 3:

  • If the answer to either of the questions is yes, then the document should be filed separately from the records and managed as nonrecord or personal papers, as appropriate.

    Note that many nonrecord documents will have medium to long-term uses within the agency as reference materials that staff will use in their day-to-day business. However useful the documents may be, they are not part of the official records of the agency. This means that they can be destroyed whenever they have outlived their usefulness.

  • If the answer to both questions is no, or if the answers are not clearly yes or no, proceed to step 4.

Step 4 - Determine if the document is a record that is not needed for longer-term documentation of agency activities.

Each type of record is discussed in more detail in the next section "Records requiring only short-term retention."

  1. Is the document a transitory document?
  2. Is the document a suspense, tracking, or control document?
  3. Is the document a facilitative document?
  4. Is the document part of the supporting material not required for long-term retention (working files)?

Actions based on step 4:

  • If the answer to any of these questions is yes, the document may be disposed of within 90 days, or sooner, if no longer needed. It does not need to be included in one of the agency's formal recordkeeping systems or the official file for the activity.
  • Generally speaking, if there is still a question about whether a specific document or message constitutes a necessary part of the adequate and proper documentation of the activity, it should be included in the file.

Additional guidance can be found at: