Prologue Magazine

Managing Those Emails

Summer 2015, Vol. 47, No. 2

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


This spring was a special time at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It was our 30th birthday as an independent agency.

Archivist Robert Warner (1980–1985) had made it his top priority to free the Archives from the General Services Administration and make NARA an independent agency within the executive branch. He succeeded, and we became independent April 1, 1985.

On "independence day," NARA's work was mostly organizing, preserving, and providing access to what we call traditional records: photographs, maps, charts—and billions and billions of pages of paper.

But as we turn 30, we now face a challenge that few could have foreseen in 1985: how to manage the mammoth amount of electronic records created daily in the federal government—and, in particular, one kind of electronic record:


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Tens of billions of email messages are created every year in the federal government. Some of them contain sensitive policy discussions by top officials. Some record the details of daily, routine government business throughout all agencies and departments. Some set up meetings, lunch dates, or a ride home.

Regardless of their content, they need to be managed. With a mandate from the President, our records management staff has been meeting with recordkeeping staffs throughout the government to find and develop ways to preserve emails.

When email first became common in our workday lives, the way to preserve them was "print and file." But today, federal employees are too busy and not always equipped with the expertise to decide which ones to preserve.

For our part, we have asked the software industry to create automated systems that will take staff decision-making out of the process and separate the permanent, "historically important" emails from those that do not need to be saved.

But we have not been waiting for the private sector to come up with a solution. Already, we have created an email management system called Capstone. Under Capstone, the agency designates a number of senior officials as “Capstone officials” and saves all their email as permanent records. Emails from all other agency employees are viewed as temporary and saved for only an appropriate amount of time.

We are now using Capstone at NARA and will base our guidance on our experiences with it. For the past four years, we have worked with the White House to require all agencies to adopt by 2016 Capstone or a comparable approach for managing emails.

Birthdays mean gifts, and we got an early one from Congress late last year in the form of new amendments to the 1950 Federal Records Act and the 1978 Presidential Records Act that update these laws, which are our basic recordkeeping statutes.

The amendments expand the definition of a federal record to include electronic records. And it grants me and my successors as Archivist of the United States the authority to determine what constitutes a Federal record.

Congress was also helpful to us when it came to emails. Now, the law requires officials who use non-official email accounts to copy or forward those emails into their official accounts within 20 days or be subject to disciplinary actions. Use of a nonofficial email account should only be used as a last resort.

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Challenges involving electronic recordkeeping are not unique to the federal government. Universities, corporations, and privately owned businesses all wrestle with similar issues.

But the challenges for records and information management professionals are clear: the volume of electronic records being created is enormous; providing access to these records is difficult and critical; and forecasting what will be "historically important" requires a blend of art and science.

We at NARA are an essential resource to other government departments and agencies. We provide training, guidance, and structure for modernizing and reforming records management. We are working with all federal agencies to ensure that our national treasures—in paper and electronic form—are saved for future generations.

As the leader in the government’s effort to solve the email management problem, we are committed to sharing with our stakeholders the solutions we develop and adopt. We will use these solutions to help non-government entities meet the same challenges posed by emails and electronic records in general.

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Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.