These guidelines set forth archivally acceptable methods of managing e-mail, and may be adopted, in whole or in part, by offices and individuals. Before implementing these e-mail guidelines, please review your record-keeping policies with the University Archives. While these guidelines are intended to apply to records retained for historical research purposes, offices and individuals should consider their applicability to other information retained for short or long-term reasons.
- Establish department-wide subject heading and Inbox file folder naming standards to be sure that e-mail can be accessed and retrieved in the future
- E-mail that is considered a record should be archived. Give employees adequate instructions and/or training to accomplish this.
- When employees retire, leave, or change work units, records stored in folders on their hard drives should be retained.
- E-mail back-ups are short-term storage for disaster recovery only. This function is not appropriate for long-term storage of information, nor is it compliant with accepted archival practice.
- Establish a “hold” policy for e-mail that may be pertinent to a known or expected legal case or investigation
What to keep
E-mail messages, sent and received, are evidence of an organization’s decisions, business transactions, and activities, and thus are official University records. For e-mail sent by employees, the record copy of an e-mail is usually the creator’s original message. When an e-mail is received by an employee, the record copy is usually the one received by the primary addressee. In cases when e-mail has been replied to multiple times, the record copy is usually the last one if all the previous messages are included. The content of an electronic message determines its status, just as it does when the communication is transmitted on paper.
Affirmative answers to the following tests indicate that an e-mail is a record:
- Proves a business-related event or activity did or did not occur;
- Demonstrates a transaction;
- Identifies who participated in a business activity or had knowledge of an event;
- Has legal or compliance value;
- Addresses a topic specifically covered by University requirement, law or regulation.
Examples of e-mail that could be considered records include:
- Agendas and meeting minutes including management teams, committees, and governing body
- Appointment calendars of executive-level daily appointments and activities; similar logs reflecting employee schedules, meetings, visitors, telephone calls
- Business transaction documentation
- Correspondence related to official business communications at the director level to and from others inside and outside the organization
- Distribution list member names and e-mail addresses for each list
- Documentation of departmental and organizational decisions and operations
- Drafts of documents circulated for comment or approval. Those reflecting evolution of policies or programs and key factors in those decisions may be subject to subpoena and should be retained on a shared drive with subsequent revisions denoted.
- Final reports or recommendations
- Grant proposals, approvals, reports
- Legal and financial records
- Organizational charts
- Policy, program, and procedure directives issued by the organization’s director-level staff addressing organizational operations, key functions, mission goals, or issues of public interest such as manuals, bulletins, orders, rules, directives, policy statements
- Press releases
- Transmittal e-mails – messages containing no substantive information that are sent only to provide attachments. Because the authenticity of an e-mail requires retention of its metadata (the transmission data), transmittals may supply a key part of the record.
- Work schedules and assignments
E-mails generally not considered records include:
- Announcements of social events, e.g. retirement parties
- Drafts of documents without substantive changes
- Duplicate copies of messages
- Inter or intra-organization memoranda, bulletins, etc. for general information
- Personal messages not related to conduct of business (however, these could have historical value depending on the correspondent and subject)
- Portions of documents sent as reference or information-only copies
- Published reference materials
- Requests for information
How long to keep it
Each organization should determine how long to keep which records based on its particular mission and legal, financial, and regulatory requirements. It may be useful in making retention decisions to sort types of information into three categories – no value, limited value, and enduring value – and establish time periods to keep each group regardless of their form (paper or electronic). Remember to consider e-mail messages and attachments as one document.
Category 1 – E-mail messages of no value
Retain: 0-30 days
- Electronic copies that have been printed out with metadata
- Messages to/from distribution lists (Listservs) not business related
- Copies of publications
- Routine requests for information or publications
- Informational e.g. holiday closings, charitable drives
- Copies of internal messages if the recipient is not the primary addressee
Category 2 – E-mail messages with limited value
- Reference use--delete when no longer needed
- Legal use--until litigation is settled and appeal time expires
- Administrative use--delete after 3 years
- Routine correspondence
- Drafts or working copies of publications or reports for which a final version exists
Category 3 – E-mail messages with enduring value
- Administrative planning
- Policy and program use
- Press releases
Sources and references
- Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library: Authors' Guidelines for Preserving Digital Archives
- Born-Digital Collections: An Inter-Institutional Model for Stewardship (AIMS): white paper
- Harvard University Archives Record Management Services
- The InterPARES Project: Creator Guidelines
- Smithsonian Institution Archives: Electronic Records: Responsible Record-Keeping
- University of Michigan: Deep Blue Preservation and Format Support Policy