E-mail is the electronic record created in the greatest quantity and used by the most people, but it is also one of the hardest formats to deal with from a records management perspective. This page will attempt to provide some guidance for dealing with e-mail issues. See also our E-mail in Outlook 2016 page for tips on working with e-mail in Outlook.
Here are some records management pointers that may help you organize your e-mail account more efficiently:
- Build inbox rules to move non-critical e-mail to deletable folders. For e-mail that you don’t want at all, you can create a rule deleting all e-mail from a particular domain (the bit after the @ sign) that will move e-mails directly to the trash. For mailing lists, find the common element in the e-mail (e.g. mailing lists that use the [e-list] prefix in the subject), use that as your filter, and use a rule directing those e-mails to a given folder. Empty that folder as needed. More about using inbox rules.
- Kill your darlings (i.e. get rid of *most* of your e-mail). Somewhere between 70-90% of your mail is either transitory (has little value beyond the time it is sent) or routine (has little value beyond the end of its related transaction). These e-mail types are specifically scheduled by UW System to have very short retention periods–7 days and 6 months after creation, respectively– and should be deleted routinely (e.g. at the end of each day or week). Be merciless. Do you really need that appointment confirmation?
- Use folders *with dates* for schedule-specific e-mails to delete them on time. Some e-mail has to be kept for longer than 6 months for administrative, fiscal, or legal reasons. That doesn’t mean you need to keep it forever! File these e-mails with long-term value in folders by project or record series, and put dates on the folders (e.g., “Student Correspondence Fall 2013”) so you will know when you can destroy those e-mails according to their record schedules.
- Employ a “touch once” policy in your inbox. The longer an e-mail languishes in your inbox, the less likely it is to be filed. Once you’ve read an e-mail, either answer it right away, delete it, or file it in its appropriate folder.
- Export mail you need for long-term reference. If you don’t refer to an e-mail folder daily or weekly but need to retain it, it can be exported to your hard drive or departmental server. For now, the main way to do this is through use of a desktop client (Outlook Thunderbird, etc.).
UW-System General Records Schedules for Business Communications
In August 2008, the Public Records Board passed a records schedule for business communications, providing retention and disposition guidance applying across all University of Wisconsin campuses. The schedule covers all forms of communications, including voice mail, text messages, instant message logs, and e-mail. If a form of communication is already part of a scheduled record series, it derives its retention period from that schedule. The full text of the schedule may be viewed here. Following is a summary of the two categories covered by the general record schedule, with retention periods.
Business Communication: Transitory
Transitory Communications are messages with no business value after the information contained in the message has been conveyed or superseded, or the event to which the message is related has occurred. Examples include scheduling e-mail, courtesy copies, superseded drafts of a project, and routine information requests (e.g., “What hours are you open?”). Retention: Destroy after 7 days.
Business Communication: Routine
Routine Communications comprise the normal communication that occurs when university employees, and sometimes their colleagues who are not university employees, work together to transact public business on behalf of the University of Wisconsin System. Examples include routine decision-making e-mail, sent copies of reports for review and comment, detailed information requests requiring research, and correspondence between students and professors. Retention: Destroy after 6 months.
The vast majority of e-mail sent and received by most users falls into one of the categories with temporary retention, above. However, a very small amount of e-mail is historically significant and should be preserved for eventual transfer to the Archives. Historically-significant e-mail generally sets or interprets policy, formalizes business processes, documents decision-making, or provides evidence of the activities of an office or department. The Archives can help you identify these types of e-mail. When in doubt, hold onto it!
E-mail Management and Filing
As with other electronic records, you should pick a file structure that suits the needs of your office and consistently use that structure. There are, however, some considerations that may help you with managing your e-mail as records.
- Use information-rich subjects. Using detailed subjects helps with both searching and visible identification of relevant e-mail.
- Poor Example: “Minutes”
- Better Example: “Executive Committee Minutes for 11/6/08”
- Include a date component in whatever file structure you use. This helps you determine at a glance when a group of e-mail were created, which can assist in applying proper disposition. An example of such a component might look like the following:
- Graduate Research Initiative
- Committee Minutes
- FY 2008
- FY 2008
- Committee Minutes
- Graduate Research Initiative
- Consider filing by retention schedule, particularly in conjunction with date folders. This level of filing will further simplify your retention decision by giving you a visual reminder of when you should be destroying or transferring a particular kind of record. If you prefer filing by subject or project name, remember that the nature of electronic filing systems means that you can still sort by retention schedule at the next level down.
- Keep personal and transitory e-mail in separate folders from record e-mail. In addition to being good business and organization practice, keeping personal e-mail away from your records lessens the likelihood that it will be produced by electronic discovery for public records requests or subpoenas.
Storing and Transferring E-mail to the Archives
The three types of storage for e-mail are referred to as On-Line, Near-Line, and Off-Line.
- On-Line: E-mail is maintained in your Outlook account. This method of storage preserves metadata and allows you to re-send e-mail as needed, but it does not guarantee access in the case of a down server or network and puts strain on the network as a whole. Additionally, the UWM Archives has no current feasible means of accepting transfers for e-mail stored in this manner.
- Near-Line: E-mail is exported to another file system, e.g. OneDrive or your departmental server, and saved there until needed or deleted. This is the recommended solution, as it creates fixity and preserves metadata while also allowing you to send a form of the e-mail via attachment or OneDrive share. See this page for instructions on exporting e-mail.
- Off-Line: E-mail are printed and stored in the office’s filing cabinets (or elsewhere). This solution creates fixity and is easiest for most offices to carry out, but it does not preserve metadata, including tags and attachments, and it creates a large amount of paper. If you utilize this solution, be sure to transfer your filing system to the physical world for ease of access. The UWM Archives will accept transfers for e-mail stored in this manner.