Records Management for Electronic Mail
Faculty of Information Studies
University of Toronto
© 1998 Eron Main firstname.lastname@example.org, Faculty of
Information Studies, University of Toronto
Katharine Sharp Review ISSN 1083-5261, No. 6, Winter 1998
Organizations are increasingly using electronic mail (email) for internal communications.
communication may be replacing more formal written systems which supported filing and
records management. While there is a body of opinion which holds that email does not produce
records, cases such as Armstrong vs. Executive Office of the President (1993) have
upheld the existence of email records. Organizations using email may not have systems in place
to ensure the capture of vital records produced in this new medium. This article will discuss the
status of email messages as records, examine the records management challenges and
advantages provided by email, and offer recommendations for the effective management of
You know, everyone really uses this thing for electronic mail.
--Bob Kahn on the ARPANET, 1972 (cited in Hafner and Lyon 1996, p. 186)
By far, the greatest use is communication by electronic mail.
--Lyn Robinson and David Bawden on the Internet, 1995 (p. 21)
- That these two almost identical statements could be made almost 25 years apart makes the
importance of electronic mail (email) abundantly clear. Kahn was speaking to an associate at
the first public showing of ARPANET--the network that was to grow into the Internet. The
"everyone" he referred to was the group of computer scientists, programmers, and networking
experts who built the Internet and first used it. Robinson and Bawden were addressing
information managers on the subject of business use of the Internet. Two disparate user groups,
a quarter century apart, found one feature of networked computing useful above all others:
communication via email.
- Communication between individuals and groups, based on the exchange of information
people, is the great strength of computer networking. This raises several questions for
information managers. Does this communication result in the creation of a record? Are all
email messages records? If so, what is to be done with such records? Are current records
management practices adequate to deal with email records? If not, what should be done?
- While these questions do not have simple answers, finding those answers is vital. In many
organizations, email is becoming the most widely used medium for the exchange of information.
If that exchange produces records which are not adequately dealt with, organizations will lose
that information, with possible legal and operational repercussions.
- For the purposes of records management, what is a record? The Association of Records
Managers and Administrators (ARMA) defines a "record" as "recorded information, regardless
medium or characteristics" (Robek, Brown, & Stephens, 1996, p. 4). Other definitions
1996) refine this to indicate that a record must be related to an event or transaction, which the
record then gives evidence of. "Transaction" refers to a business transaction of some sort--an
agreement or a decision relating to the day-to-day business of an organization. Duranti,
Eastwood, and MacNeil (1997) describe a record as "testimony, produced on a medium in the
of practical activity, of facts taken into consideration by the rules recognized as binding by a
social group" (tem1.htm).
Definitions are sometimes further refined to include the types of information
which must be recorded for the record to be complete or reliable. Such information, while
significant, may not always be recorded when a record is created, but is instead captured by the
records management system.
- For this article, a record will be defined as information recorded in some lasting form, which
provides evidence of an event or transaction. The term "lasting form" implies no set format or
duration; it simply means that the information is not transient: some positive action must be
taken to destroy a record once it has been created. This definition is general enough to include
business-related correspondence conducted via email, without going so far as to capture every
email message. This is necessary because of the widespread use of email systems to carry
personal as well as business correspondence.
- This notion of lasting form implies the need for rules regarding the retention and disposal of
records. In records management practice, retention requirements must be specified for all
records. These detail which records must be kept in what forms and for how long. Once kept,
records cannot be destroyed except in accordance with their retention schedules.
- There are a wide number of definitions of email (Du-Rea & Pemberton, 1994;
Some provide a narrow definition, encompassing only the transmission of text by certain
electronic means. Others extend the concept to include all information which is transmitted
electronically, including electronic data interchange, fax, and voice mail. For the purposes of
this article, email will be defined as a computer-based system which permits the transmission of
messages from an individual to one or more recipients. These messages may include text or
other forms of data, either in the message body or as attached files. For an email message to be
transmitted from one individual to another, all that is required is that they be using compatible
systems which are connected by a network or group of networks.
- While there are a variety of email systems in use, all share some common characteristics.
basic unit of email is the "message," a single transmission sent by a single individual. Messages
may be sent to one or more recipients; each recipient receives a separate copy of the message.
Most systems can be configured to retain a file copy for the originator. A message can be
broken into three components: the header, the body, and the attachments.
- The header provides routing and identification information about the message itself. Most
important is the network address of the recipient. This must specify a particular computer
account at a specific network location. The account specified does not have to belong to a
specific individual; accounts such as "root" or "postmaster" denote administrative positions. In
general, though, most accounts are assigned to individuals. Depending on the addressing system
and the account configuration, the identity of the account holder may not always be apparent;
account names such as "email@example.com" are fairly common. To overcome any resulting
confusion, headers will sometimes include the name of the intended recipient, although this is
only possible if the originator knows the name.
- Other information in the header includes the date of transmission, the network path taken by
message, a reply-to address, and references to previous messages, if the message is in response
to them. Even within email systems, headers are often not standardized. From the earliest days
of email there have been debates over how much information should go into a header, with little
resolution (Hafner & Lyon, 1996). Most email standards simply define a minimum set of
information. Figure 1 shows a typical email header from the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol
(SMTP), a widely used standard for Internet email. SMTP requires only that the author, the
creation time, and one addressee be identified. All other fields in the header are optional
Received: from localhost (cowan@localhost) by fur.ermine.com (8.8.5/8.8.4) with
SMTP id XAA31682 for <firstname.lastname@example.org>; Mon, 7 Apr 1997 23:41:06 -0400
Date: Mon, 7 Apr 1997 23:41:06 -0400 (EDT)
From: Darin Cowan <email@example.com>
To: Eron Main <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Your key, signed
Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII
Figure 1. Typical email header
- The message body contains the basic information content of the message. Because of the
variety of computer platforms and email reader software used, and the vagaries of networked
communications, email systems tend to rely on fairly simple formats for content. Message
bodies normally consist of plain text only. Email standards often restrict the character set which
may be used. SMTP, for example, requires that only the basic American Standard Code for
Information Interchange (ASCII) character set (in effect, standard typewriter characters) be used
(Crocker, 1982). Message bodies do not as a rule contain any information about the message
itself; one- or two-word bodies, such as "I concur" are not uncommon. Some users append
signature files to all outgoing messages; these are user-created text files which normally provide
a name and email address, perhaps accompanied by contact information or other notes about the
sender. Their use is never guaranteed and so they cannot be relied upon as a source for message
- Because of the content limitations of message bodies, most email systems support the use of
attachments to allow the transmission of documents formatted for specific computer
applications, graphics, and other more complex information. These generally use the email
message as an envelope which contains a binary data file. These files must usually be extracted
and read with another application, such as a word processor or graphics viewer. Some newer
email readers, such as Netscape, allow the viewing of certain attached file formats (e.g.,
hypertext documents, image files) within the reader itself.
- As email is so widely used, it is difficult to describe a typical use. A common characteristic
email systems is the mix of business and personal messages. As early as 1973, one of the
developers of ARPANET used email to ask a colleague in England to retrieve an electric razor
he had forgotten at a hotel (Hafner & Lyon, 1996). The initial perception of email was that
would primarily replace the telephone as a medium for informal, transient communications.
Evidence suggests that it has gone far beyond that.
- A 1986 UNESCO study found two major categories of email use: email messages and email
documents. The former consisted of brief, informal communications which did more than just
replace the telephone. "The short note written out on a note pad, or marginal comments on a
letter or report fall under the rubric of electronic mail messages" (Dollar, 1986, p. 79). A
was made between these and what were referred to as email documents, which consisted of
more formal communications.
- A later UN study, examining 18 organizations which used email, confirmed these findings.
Email was "often used to send and receive information that would in any other medium be
official-record material" (Advisory Committee for the Coordination of Information Systems
[ACCIS], 1990, p. 9). Of the organizations studied, about half indicated that email was used to
circulate documents for review, to send memos, and to transfer files and official documents.
Only three maintained any distinction between official and unofficial use of email, and there
were, in general, no policies regarding long-term storage in electronic form.
- Markus, Bikson, El-Shinnawy, and Soe (1992) found similar patterns of use at private sector
organizations. In addition,
email was found to be used for communication more often than either fax or voice mail. Users
noted that email was better when they needed to be able to retrieve a copy of a message for later
use and when they needed a record of the message.
- In implementing email, organizations normally give responsibility for the overall system to
who are responsible for the provision of computing resources in general. This is sensible, given
that email systems are intimately linked with the total computer system in a given organization.
However, this arrangement creates problems for records management, as will be discussed in
more detail below.
Do they exist?
- Given the nature of email messages and their uses, are they records? It seems clear that they
be. Duranti et al. (1997) state that the "necessary components of a record are
form, persons, acts" (tem1.htm).
Email messages have all of these. The medium is electronic storage. The
content is provided in the message body. The form is present in the display particular to the
email system in use. There are a minimum of two persons associated with all email messages, a
sender and a recipient. Emails are used to record or initiate acts, and the sending of an email is
in itself an act of information transaction.
- As well as meeting the theoretical requirements of a record, email messages meet the
requirements. They are clearly regarded by those who send and receive them as records. This is
apparent in the desires of individuals to preserve some or all of their email messages, and in the
use of email by those who wish to keep a record of a message (Markus et al., 1992).
- In the United States, the interpretation of email messages as records has been upheld in
the case Armstrong vs. Executive Office of the President (1993) (also known as the
after the email system in question), the American National Security Archive filed suit to prevent
the destruction of computer backup tapes containing White House email messages from the
Reagan administration. The defendants argued, in part, that the electronic versions of messages
were simply convenience copies, and that staff were instructed to print out a paper copy of any
message which was deemed by them to be a federal record. The court held that the email
messages themselves were federal records. Printed copies were deemed to be insufficient to
serve as the copies of record as too much key information can be lost in the conversion from
complete email message to paper copy.
- While this decision does not mention private sector records, and has no bearing outside the
United States, it indicates that there is a solid legal footing for treating email messages as
records. As one commentator notes, the destruction of records, once they are created, should
only take place under a records retention program. Even without laws explicitly covering their
retention, if email messages can be deemed to be records, their destruction without clear
guidelines "might cause legal problems" (Skupsky, 1994, p. 40).
- Also of note in the Profs case is the court's position that having managers choose which
messages are records is inappropriate. A record does not become so based on a managerial
decision; it is a record because of its origin in a transaction and its evidentiary nature. If a
document, paper or electronic, provides evidence of an event or transaction, then it is a record
whether or not anyone explicitly designates it as such. Managers may choose not to control or
manage certain records, but that decision does not strip those particular documents of their status
as records, nor does it protect the managers should those records not be available when they are
Email as Evidence
- If email records are to be useful as such, they need to be able to act as evidence of an
organization's activities. Bearman suggests an equation (Figure 2) which details the
requirements for a record to become evidence (cited in Duff, Thomas, & Wallace,
1994, p. 305).
Evidence = Information Content + Structure + Context of Transactions
Figure 2. Records as evidence
- The information content alone, either the body of the email message, any attachments, or
insufficient to allow a message to act as evidence. It is this which led the court in the Profs case
to rule that the electronic forms of the messages themselves were records. The structure and
context of an email message may be completely lost if the format is changed, either from an
electronic to a paper copy, or from an email message to a plain text electronic file. Much of the
necessary information is contained in the header component of the message, not all of which is
necessarily displayed to the recipient or printed out with the body text. Attachments to emails
are often left out of printed copies as well, further limiting the usefulness of a paper copy.
- This is a related issue to the question of form. Different email systems will display the body
text, the form, of the same message in different ways. As a result, information such as emphasis
may be lost when a message is viewed on a system other than that on which it was created or for
which it was intended. Even if all header information is visible, a paper copy printed out from a
system other than the original may lose important aspects of form from the message body.
While the problem of retrieving the original form persists even when the original email is
preserved, such preservation at least provides the option of viewing the message on the original
system. That opportunity is lost if the message is deleted after a paper copy is made.
- Duranti et al.'s (1997, tem6.htm) interpretation of
electronic records supports this.
Their requirements for a
complete electronic record are shown in Figure 3. Most of these are normally contained in the
minimum header information for email messages. All systems certainly provide for them,
although it is technically possible to exclude the actual name of the author and recipients as
network addresses alone will suffice for both. The time and date of transmission is recorded,
though not necessarily that of receipt. The convention is that a subject is included, although it is
not a requirement of the system. The disposition, the expression of the will of the author, is
contained in the body of the message. If there is no body, there can be--by definition--no
- Chronological date (of both transmission and receipt)
- Topical date
- Entitling (originating address)
- Attestation (name of author/writer)
- Receivers (name of copied persons)
- Title or subject
Figure 3. Requirements for a complete electronic record.
- As email messages are records, and as they have the potential to act as evidence given the
inclusion of some necessary information, it follows that they should be subject to the same types
of records management, including retention and destruction policies, as all other records. At the
moment, this is not always the case. The next section will examine why, and what may be done
MANAGEMENT OF EMAIL RECORDS
- Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the management of email records is the lack of
on all sides that they actually exist. It is somewhat understandable that the information systems
staff responsible for email systems are unaware; they are not trained in records management and
their primary concern for preservation is the maintenance of backups to allow their systems to be
rebuilt. However, records managers have often failed to consider email. One records
management textbook from 1989 makes no mention whatsoever of email, even though by that
time email was already in fairly heavy use (Lundgren & Lundgren, 1989). Other texts lump
email together with all other electronic records, based on its format, rather than including it as a
form of correspondence based on its primary function.
- There is more to managing email records than indexing, maintaining the media, and
systems exist to read archived messages. While these are important to ensuring preservation,
many records are lost before they ever reach this stage. Often, email records are never captured
in the first place.
- A major reason for this is that the users of the email system, those who send and receive the
messages, are often the ones who determine whether a record copy is kept. When they recognize
the need to do so, they act on it by keeping local copies of the messages they deem important.
These are often not organized in any rational manner, are not kept according to any retention
schedule, and are not accessible to the rest of the organization. The result is a collection of large
personal email boxes, with some messages preserved in multiple locations and others preserved
nowhere. Even regular backups of these email boxes will not be sufficient, as keeping a copy
does no good if it cannot be found. As just one example of this, I once watched an individual
attempting to retrieve a single email message from his own storage space. All of the messages
were filed sequentially by date, in a single email folder which, at that point, contained over
seven hundred messages covering more than six months. This was not an unskilled user, but a
computer programmer who was the leader of a technical project team.
- This is not a question of users being unaware of the general need for records management.
When dealing with paper records, most users know the requirements. As McDonald (1995)
observed, in paper "we would have thought twice about having a memo prepared and forwarded
without following some rules" (p. 84). The difference is that when a paper memo, report, or
prepared, it is generally distributed through channels which have been developed and are
maintained by staff trained in records management. That is not the case with email. Originators
distribute their email messages directly to the recipients, without passing through a central
registry of any sort, and they do so through a system designed by a computer programmer, not a
records manager. Email systems are not designed, nor their administrators trained, with record
keeping in mind.
- Compounding the ignorance of users and computer system staff about records management
techniques is the lack of awareness of email on the part of otherwise skilled records managers.
In the UNESCO study noted above (Dollar, 1986), records managers were generally unaware
that their organizations even used email. In the Profs case, no less an authority than the United
States National Archivist appeared to be unaware of the records potential of email (Bearman,
1994). While this situation is improving, there are still many records managers who do not see
how email should fit into their systems.
- The actual identity of authors and recipients is another potential problem area for email
management. The only information required by the system is an account identifier. It is
possible for an account to be used by more than one individual, or for an individual to use an
account belonging to another. For records management purposes, it may be necessary to assume
that the holder of a given computer account, as designated by information systems personnel, is
the originator of all email messages from that account. This assumes a certain level of systems
- Preserving the original form of email messages is also a challenge. While it is possible to
require that all personnel within a given organization use the same email system, thus ensuring
consistent message forms, such control is not possible over messages originating outside the
organization. In addition, large organizations, organizations which are geographically dispersed,
or organizations whose business requires the use of different computer platforms and operating
systems by different personnel, may not be able to ensure such consistency internally.
- In addition to its challenges, the nature of email presents some advantages to those
for managing email records. One major advantage is that email is an automated system . It is
possible to capture a record copy of an email message without placing any additional burden on
the originator. If email systems are set up appropriately, these copies can be retained
automatically, with no intervention required by the originator, the recipient, records manager, or
computer systems staff.
- Another advantage of email is the potential it has to support the automatic capture of
from each record. Email systems are already designed to prompt the user for some header
information and to provide other information automatically. By retaining the message header
with any record copy, and designing it so that it includes all the required record information,
records managers can ensure they have all the information necessary for a complete record. It is
this characteristic which led to the court decision in the Profs case that email messages rather
than paper copies were the copies of record. Only the electronic copies retained this metadata in
the header fields, so only they were complete records.
- The question of how to manage email records has been given a fair amount of thought by
records management professionals. There is broad consensus that something must be done, that
email records need to be managed better than they currently are.
- Foremost among the suggested solutions are awareness programs to inform users, computer
systems staff, and records managers that email records are as valuable to the organization as
every other record kept. By making users and computer system staff aware on the one hand that
they must preserve email records, and making records managers aware on the other that there is
such a thing as an email record, organizations will go a long way toward solving their problems.
In particular, such awareness is vital if the necessary parties are to cooperate with the
requirements of records management.
- Automatic backup copies of email messages are also a popular recommendation. The need
beyond simple backups is also recognized; in the computer world, backups exist so that the
system can be rebuilt after a crash. Normal backup systems cannot support requests for the
retrieval of a particular item. One example of an enhanced automated backup is provided by
- In 1990, W. R. Grace and Company found that while much important information was being
exchanged via email, it was not being made available to all interested parties. They modified
their email system to automatically keep a copy of every message transmitted. Each day, the
copied messages were compacted, indexed, and placed in a full-text searchable database.
Messages were kept in the active database for six months and then moved to archival storage.
While this is not a complete records management solution, lacking retention requirements, it
does begin to solve the problem of providing access to stored records.
- This solution points to a major element in ensuring effective email management: that of
records management right into the existing system, what Bearman (1994) refers to as
functional requirement through design" (p. 183). While it would be helpful if
proactive in supporting records management, it must be remembered that they use email because
it is seen as a convenient way to communicate. If burdensome records management
requirements are added to the system, users will bypass it in favor of a simpler mode of
communication, such as telephone or voice mail.
- That is not to say that some additional user input cannot be implemented. Realistically,
will have to take some steps to classify their email messages if they are to be properly handled
by the records management system. The normal volumes of email present in most organizations
would overwhelm any records manager who attempted to assess each message individually.
While some early writers on the subject proposed the use of artificial intelligence programs or
expert systems to parse email messages and determine their categories, such systems are not yet
workable. Although a subject heading is not essential if full-text searching of stored messages
can be provided, originators must identify, by means of a file number or other notation, the
record series or classification of their message, or else there will be no way to associate it with a
particular set of retention requirements. As a bare minimum, users should specify whether the
message is corporate or personal, so that invitations to dinner are not captured alongside
quarterly budget proposals.
- A final proposal, often stated in the literature, details the requirement for standardized email
systems to ensure that all parts of an organization may exchange messages. This was
particularly noted by those examining UN organizations and other governmental bodies where
there is a sufficient number of users and diversity of bodies that incompatible systems could be
acquired. The need for standards is quite valid; however, several writers (e.g., ACCIS, 1990)
have gone beyond the general principle to recommend the adoption of a specific email standard:
the X.400 system proposed by the International Standards Organization. This is always a
dangerous move. While X.400 has the backing of several government bodies, the world of
networking moves fairly quickly and end-users often pay little heed to bureaucratic dictates.
While the email standards debate is not over, the SMTP standard appears to be gaining the upper
hand. What is important in the age of the Internet is not so much that a standard be adopted, but
that an open system be used, which allows different email packages to share the same
information and view the same messages.
- Based on all the above, a number of recommendations can be made for the management of
email records. After a lengthy description of how email differs from paper records, the first
suggestion may seem incongruous: treat email records in exactly the same manner as paper.
That is not to say that the same capture or storage methods should be used, only that the
principles should be the same. In particular, it is doubtful that email records will represent an
entirely different class, or classes, of records. Most email traffic deals with routine
correspondence, projects, and planning, all the areas which are also covered by paper records.
File numbers and classifications exist for these paper records; retention requirements have been
determined. These do not change simply because someone submits an email comment on a
project plan rather than a written memo.
- As much as possible, email records should fit into existing records management structures.
evidence points to the fact that email messages are simply another form of correspondence, that
they have the same value and retention needs as paper. While it is necessary to implement
different storage systems, there should be no need to reassess retention.
- The retention of the same records series in different formats--print and email, as a
minimum--can create additional problems. Some means is necessary to ensure that a search of
a given records series will encompass all forms. A solution may be to automate all records
management functions, recording information about print and electronic records in the same
database for search purposes.
- Records managers should take advantage of the automated nature of email to automatically
create record copies. Some users may be uncomfortable with having all their email messages
captured, preferring to designate those which are records and leave personal messages out.
However, the existence of a record is a matter of fact based on the content and origin of the
record; it is not based on the judgement of an individual. Users should simply be warned that
any personal messages they send may be retained. If the email system has been procured to
support the operational needs of an organization, this policy is entirely justifiable.
- Email systems should be modified with an additional required header field for a file number
classification. Users should be instructed to insert this, just as they are required to insert an
address. The retention of an email record can then be based on the existing requirements for that
class. Some messages may not be easy to classify; if a file number is not inserted, the system
should route a copy to the records manager for classification, although such messages should be
- In addition to the file classification, the subject field and the names of the originator and
recipients should be mandatory header components. Stored email messages should be indexed
on the originator, recipient, subject, date, and file number. In addition, where possible, the full
text of messages should also be searchable.
- Email produces records. These records have the same legal requirements as all other
an organization. While current records management systems do not always adequately handle
email records, there is no reason that they cannot be extended to do so. What is required is that
all parties be aware of the value of email records, and that modifications be made to email
systems to meet the needs of records management at the same time as records managers adapt
their procedures to incorporate email records. If this is done, a great deal of potentially valuable
information which might have been lost will be retained, to the benefit of the organization.
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