Federal Records Management

Frequently Asked Questions about Instant Messaging

What is Instant Messaging (IM)?

How does IM differ from email?

Does IM content qualify as a Federal Record?

How do I manage my IM content?

What are the current best practices for capturing IM?

How can I schedule IM content?

How do I get assistance with specific records management questions relating to IM?


What is Instant Messaging (IM)?

Instant Messaging (IM) is an electronic messaging service that allows users to determine whether a certain party is connected to the messaging system at the same time. IM allows them to exchange text messages with connected parties in real time.

To use the service, users must have IM client software installed on their workstations. While there are many types of IM clients, they all tend to function in a similar manner. Client software may either be part of an agency's IT network and available to only registered users, or be public and available to anyone on the Internet. The client software logs into a central server to create connections with other clients logged in at that same time. Users create and exchange messages through their local client application.

Other important points:

  • In addition to sending messages, users may have the ability to attach and exchange electronic files such as images, audio, video, and textual documents. This capability depends on the configuration of the individual client software as well as on protocols established at the client server.
  • Depending on the software, users who are online may have the ability to respond to messages.
  • Users may also block other users with whom they do not want to exchange messages.
  • Users may only communicate with others using the same or a compatible client software.

How does IM differ from Email?

Fundamentally, the difference between IM and email is the notion of presence. This means that users of the IM system are aware that other users have logged in and are willing to accept messages. Unlike email, IM content can only be sent to users who are logged in to the system and accepting messages. If users are not logged in, others do not have the ability to send them messages.

Because IM is not predicated upon an open standard, there is no uniformity regarding message transmission and structure.

Does IM Content Qualify as a Federal Record?

The statutory definition of records (44 U.S.C. 3301) includes all machine readable materials made or received by an agency of the United States Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business. Agencies that allow IM traffic on their networks must recognize that such content may be a Federal record under that definition and must manage the records accordingly. The ephemeral nature of IM heightens the need for users to be aware that they may be creating records using this application, and to properly manage and preserve record content. Agency records management staff determine the record status of the IM content based on the overall records management policies and practices of their agency.


How do I Manage my IM Content?

Agencies developing a comprehensive policy need to ensure that IM content is managed consistently across the agency in its component offices. An effective policy addresses the authorized use of the IM technology and provides guidelines for the management of the records generated during an IM session. This is especially important because IM content may be subject to various types of access requests, including under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or as part of a discovery process in a litigation context.

IM content that is a record must be managed as such. Here are two ways:

  • Provide policies that inform users what steps to undertake to manage the content;
  • Configure the IM client or server to capture IM without user intervention.

IM content that is a Federal record must be managed in conjunction with related records.

What are the Current Best Practices for Capturing IM?

Nearly all IM client software has the ability to capture the content as either a plain text file or in a format native to that client. Generally, the location and maximum size of that file is determined by a configuration setting in the client. DoD 5015.2 certified applications have the ability to capture and manage records in any electronic format. Such formats include those files produced by the various IM clients.

In addition, various IM management products have the ability to address the monitoring and management of IM content, either from those clients that are part of the agency's enterprise or the various public clients. Generally, these products operate at the server level and should be able to capture IM sessions regardless of the configuration of the individual client.

Determining which solution is appropriate for your agency involves collaboration among the program staff, the information technology (IT) staff, the records management staff, and NARA.

How can I Schedule IM Content?

If an agency determines IM content to be a Federal record, the record must have a NARA-approved disposition authority. Do not identify IM content as a single series of records with a universal disposition. Instead, evaluate IM content within the context of the overall records of the program to which the IM relates and the business rules that may apply. Disposition instructions for IM should be consistent with similar agency records. Schedule in accordance with the agency's established records management policy. IM records may already be scheduled as part of other series, such as records typically found in a case file or a correspondence system. For further assistance, please contact your NARA appraisal archivist.

How do I get Assistance with Specific Records Management Questions Relating to IM?

NARA's Life Cycle Management Division provides assistance and advice to agency records officers of agencies headquartered in the Washington, DC, area. The Records Management staff in NARA's regional offices provides assistance and advice to agency records officers of agencies headquartered in the field and - in consultation with NWML agency liaison staff - of field offices subordinate to agencies headquartered in Washington. Your agency's records officer may contact the NARA appraiser or records analyst with whom your agency normally works. A list of the appraisal and scheduling work group and regional contacts is posted on the NARA web site at http://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/appraisal/. The Records Management staff in NARA's regional offices provides assistance to agency records officers across the country. A complete list of NARA regional facilities may be found at http://www.archives.gov/locations/index.html.