FAQ: Archival Custody

Why does the retention and disposition schedule specify that some records will transfer to the custody of the Archives?

The agency that creates or receives a public record is the legal custodian of that record.  This legal custodian is bound to follow the retention and disposition instructions for these records, as established by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.  The custodian also must provide access to these records as required by the Public Records Act (General Statute 132) or necessitated by an audit or litigation.

When state agency records are transferred to the Archives for permanent retention, that legal custodianship is conveyed to the Archives.  From that point forward, the Archives is responsible for providing access to the records, whether the request comes from a researcher, a reporter, an attorney, or even someone in the creating agency.  This access is provided in our search room in the State Library/Archives and History building on Jones Street.

After records are in the legal custody of the State Archives of North Carolina, several steps are taken to facilitate appropriate access to these records.  Some arrangement of the records may occur, although for the most part records will remain in the order in which they have been maintained in the agency.  Duplicates and any non-archival material that was transferred will be weeded out during this process.  Any need for preservation treatment is also identified at this point.  The records are then described in what the archival world calls a “finding aid,” which explains who created the records, when they were created, what volume of records exists, and any other explanatory information that may assist researchers.  This finding aid also specifies if there are any confidentiality provisions that restrict access to the records.  One reason it’s important to keep track of the dates of the records is that General Statute 132-11 specifies that after 100 years, records that were previously confidential will become open access (with a few exceptions).

Under the previous system for scheduling state agency records, many archival records had disposition instructions that specified when they should transfer to the State Records Center and then included a period of time in which these records would be in the physical custody of the State Records Center while still remaining in the legal custody of the originating agency.  Going back to the 1960s, some more verbose disposition instructions also included a reference to the archival weeding described above:

Transfer to the State Records Center.  The records will then be reviewed to remove archival material prior to destruction.  Archival material will then be transferred to the Archives.

Under the new Functional Schedule for State Agency Records, most archival records have a more succinct disposition instruction like this:

transfer directions for 647.A

This allows the agency to retain the records in office as long as they need to be accessed frequently rather than specifying a mandatory transfer point.  By authorizing the Archives to accession the records immediately after transfer, which conveys legal custody, the integrity and completeness of the records can be guaranteed because the original records will no longer be able to leave the premises of the Archives.  As explained above, these records will be available to all users through our search room, where they can be viewed and copied as necessary.

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