The main differences between the e-mail policy of the US National Archives (NARA) and those of the national archives of Australia, Canada and the UK, are that:
- NARA would rather accession and permanently preserve the contents of the e-mail accounts of senior federal civil servants than have those e-mail accounts routinely deleted.
- NARA does not insist US federal agencies move significant correspondence out of their e-mail environment into a separate records system
This is an important development. Not because it solves the challenge of e-mail. It doesn’t. E-mail accounts are still hard to manage because of the undifferentiated presence of sensitive personal data about the account holder and/or the people they correspondence with and/or third parties.
It is important because it gives a green light for archivists and records managers to explore ways of managing e-mail correspondence within an e-mail environment.
Over the past fifteen years the main ambition of records management practice has been to move significant e-mails out of the e-mail environment (typically Microsoft Outlook/Exchange) into a separate ‘record system’ ( paper files/shared drives/electronic records management systems/SharePoint etc.).
The problem with this approach is that an e-mail environment is optimised for people to navigate, browse, sort and read e-mail. In contrast a document environment such as SharePoint is not optimised for e-mail.
SharePoint is a system that is designed to be so flexible that an organisation could, if it so wished, define a different set of metadata columns for every document library in every different SharePoint site. E-mail on the other hand has a fixed set of metadata fields that are common to every e-mail.
We are accustomed to browsing e-mail in a completely different way to browsing documents. We browse e-mails by date, sender or recipient. We browse documents by activity or subject.
Basing the practice of an entire profession (records management) on moving content (e-mail) from an environment that is optimised for it to an environment that is not optimised for it is not a recipe for long term success.
As a profession and as individual practitioners we cannot change this approach overnight. But we can start to explore what policy provisions we would need, and what alterations/additions to e-mail environments and their ecosytsems we would need, in order for e-mails to be manageable over time, and shareable over time, within an e-mail environment.
See this previous post for extracts from the email policies of the four national archives mentioned in this post