The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is soliciting public comment through Feb. 1, 2021, on a proposed rule for the permanent digitization of public records. The agency – which publicly posted the proposed rule on Dec. 1 – said the measure is integral to civilian agencies going fully paperless by December 2022.

NARA’s Chief Records Officer, who explained the proposed rule today at a virtual event organized by FCW, said the December 2022 target date may be subject to change given uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The rule set out for comment comes as a supplement to prior NARA guidance on digitizing temporary files. NARA and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have been working on the rule for a while, and it has already gone through two rounds of comments from agencies that will have to implement it.

“We propose to amend 36 CFR part 1236, Electronic Records Management, to add a new subpart establishing standards for digitizing permanent paper and photographic records, including paper and photographs contained in mixed-media records,” the proposed rule reads.

“You must also place digitized records in a system that can successfully produce and manage the records over time and must ensure you have intellectual and physical control over source records sufficient to support digitization,” the rule states. “Having and maintaining an appropriate level of intellectual and physical control over source records is critical to a digitization project’s success.”

Creating comprehensive guidelines for digitizing permanent records is essential for agencies to hit the deadlines set out by Memorandum-19-21, which requires all government agencies to fully transition to paperless records by December 2022. The rules will be retroactively applicable to agencies already in the process of digitizing records.

There are a few exceptions to the proposed rule which include: the scanning of such records being a burden to the public; when the cost of digitizing records exceeds the benefit; or where laws or statutes require paper records or “wet signatures.” Agencies are also expected to keep paper copies of records with intrinsic value – such as treaties – or records deemed classified or fragile.

NARA wants to publish the finalized rule at some point in 2021 but has no specific timeline. After the public comment period passes, NARA and OMB must review and respond to all comments before they can begin to finalize the rule. The COVID-19 pandemic may affect the December 2022 timeline, but as of now, NARA is unsure of how the timeline will be affected amid the current surge of virus cases.

“Our planning right now, is how do we keep our staff safe, how do we keep our buildings open to the point that we can do emergency requests and satisfy those critical needs from veterans and others who need records now,” said Lawrence Brewer, Chief Records Officer at NARA, today at a virtual event organized by FCW.  “No decisions have been made,” he said.

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.