Managing e-mail in its native environment

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

3 thoughts on “Managing e-mail in its native environment

  1. “We cannot change this approach overnight”. Agreed. But the basic problem is the same: to give access and retrieve the e-mails we need.

    As you have written, “we browse e-mails by date, sender, recipient”: this often is not enough to retrieve the e-mails, the information we need: I know it by personal experience. If there are e-mails which are records, if there are e-mails we need to access, retrieve, use, protect, delete, we need effective methods and systems to manage the so as to be able to achieve our objectives.

    Essentially, there are two main strategies: 1) to regard the e-mail environment(s) we use as an isolated component of the corporate Records Management System archipelago and attempt to apply to the e-mail environment(s) the same rules as those we have established for all the other RKS components; 2) to integrate somehow the e-mails more closely with the rest of the corporate RKS by making the e-mail environment(s) interact directly with other components of it.

    I think that the first strategy is easier to be put into practice, but if correctly implemented the second one is more effective; this because the first and most important hurdle when you try to deal with e-mails is their sheer number: e-mails are as numerous as the grains of the sand of Sahara, as the bacteria living on Earth: it is impossible to try to tame their flows without at least a certain degree of automation, and it is hard to implement it if e-mails are simply kept in an isolated native environment, maybe even without any add-on tool that may be able to enhance its capabilities (in this respect, the automated rules available in several e-mail native environments are not powerful enough to achieve good outcomes).

    The first strategy might be more viable if new and far more powerful e-mails native environments, equipped with adequate Records Management functionalities, were available on the market, but at the moment this does not seem to be the case.

    Thank you for the post, James!

  2. Thanks for this interesting and prospective post. However, there is a sentence which seems curious to me. You say: “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”. I wonder how many people manage their e-mails in that way. I don’t. Who or what made us (I mean you) accustomed to do so? I agree that the software (designed one day by some IT manager whose brain is surely completely different from mine) don’t help but it is nevertheless possible to manage e-mails by subject or by value. In my practice, it is even easier than with other documents.

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