Research paper on archival theory and email

The journal Archival Science has published the latest paper from my doctoral research project into archival policy towards email. The paper is entitled ‘Rival records management models in an era of partial automation’. It is an open access paper and is free to read and to download from here.

The paper argues that:

  • the adoption of email in the 1990s brought in an era of partial automation. Email systems could automatically file correspondence, but not into a structure/schema of our choosing;
  • Frank Upward’s records continuum model sees a recordkeeping system as a set of processes that involve the creation, capture, organisation and sharing of records;
  • in an email system the process by which correspondence is captured is optimal. Correspondence is filed instantly according to very predictable and reliable rules. Metadata values are assigned consistently and accurately;
  • the structure and metadata schema of a typical email system is sub-optimal. Correspondence is not linked to the business activity it arose from, and business correspondence is not distinguished from personal, trivial, and social correspondence. This causes difficulties with the management and sharing of records (most notably when an individual leaves post and their successor cannot normally be permitted to access the business correspondence within their email account).

A significant proportion of archival and records management thought over the course of the past quarter of a century has gone into trying to specify what constitutes an optimal structure and metadata schema for a records system.

In the era before email, when we did not have the capability to automatically file correspondence, there was a level playing field between different ways of structuring a record system. An organisation had a choice of several ways it could file correspondence (chronologically, alphabetically by correspondent, functionally by business activity). It did not take appreciably more effort for a human to file into any one of these three different structures than into any of the others. It therefore made sense to choose the structure that gives the optimum efficiency in terms of the management and sharing of records through time. This equates to the structure that is most efficient from the point of view of the application of records retention and access rules. Theodore Schellenberg, author of the foundational text on records management, tells us that the most efficient way of organising records is by function and business activity.

The coming of email changed this equation. An email system automatically files all of an organisation’s email correspondence alphabetically and chronologically at the email system level, and all of an individual’s correspondence alphabetically and chronologically at an email account level. There is no longer a level playing field between different ways of structuring a record system. We can automatically and instantly file email correspondence chronologically and alphabetically, but if we want to file it by business activity then that would have to be done manually.

In this era of partial automation we have a paradoxical situation whereby if we were to ask end-users to file email correspondence into an application with an optimal structure/schema (one that organises records by business activity) then we are likely to make the recordkeeping of the organisation less efficient and less reliable. This is because we would be using an unreliable manual process to re-file correspondence that had already been filed automatically and reliably into a sub-optimal structure/schema.

The paper therefore finds a justification within archival theory for approaches that seek to manage correspondence in place within the structure and metadata schema of a native messaging application (for example of an email system) even where that structure/schema is sub-optimal . This justification is valid in circumstances where the native application has automatically and reliably assigned correspondence to that structure/schema, and where the organisation lacks an automatic and reliable means to re-assign correspondence to an alternative (more optimal) structure/schema.

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