Email. By this point, everyone knows that email can be a record and that it should be classified, scheduled, and ultimately retained or destroyed like any other record. However, despite everybody knowing this, almost nobody has come up with a rigorous yet realistic way of doing it that works in the real world with real people.
In my current environment, we’re slowly moving from a culture in which no email was systematically retained (other than for legal holds) to one in which email’s potential administrative and historical value is recognized, and in which some systematic retention is starting. To accomplish that, we’re using a strategy similar to NARA’s capstone approach, in which the accounts of key individuals are, by definition, held to contain historically valuable material worthy of permanent retention. To supplement that record, though, I’ve also started pursuing another technique with select offices and groups: the creative use of service email accounts.
On our campus, service accounts are shared email accounts that are not tied to a particular individual, but instead to an office, activity or function; email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org might be (entirely fictitious) examples of service accounts. In working with one particular office to identify and schedule their records, it became clear that their service email account needed to be scheduled for permanent retention. However, there were still situations in which staff members might need to send emails that should also be retained from their own personal accounts.
As I mentioned above, beginning to capture email for permanent retention is not only a technological question, it’s also a cultural one. The vast majority of staff at my institution are not accustomed to thinking of their email as anything that might be permanently retained, nor should they be. I’m cognizant of the issues summed up by the University of Michigan’s University Archives and Records Program in the title of their case study “Will They Populate the Boxes?”, as previously blogged by Beth Cron. In short, for an email archiving program to work, it needs to work with the culture, workflows and habits of the people who will be carrying it out.
In this particular case, the staff members I was working with agreed that bcc’ing the departmental service account, which was already scheduled for permanent retention, on select emails was a low-barrier way to begin to capture some of the important administrative and historical information that would otherwise be lost when an individual left and their email account was deleted. While most of them didn’t think they would be able to keep up with a filing system or other method for categorizing their emails, they did look favorably on the bcc idea. Since then, I have proposed a similar solution to another department, whose administrative staff have also responded positively.
We’re still working out the technical details to make sure that both incoming and outgoing messages to the service accounts will be retained permanently. We’ve also still yet to see whether staff are able to keep up with the bcc habit that they’ve embraced in theory. However, I’m hopeful that these service accounts will prove to be a useful mechanism for capturing important emails in an institution where that has never before been the cultural norm.
I’m interested to hear from others working in highly decentralized environments — what nontraditional methods have you devised for capturing permanently valuable emails?