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Recordkeeping In Brief 49 - FAQs: Emails and recordkeeping

The 10 most commonly asked questions regarding the management of emails as records.

1. Do government recordkeeping rules, policies and standards apply to email?

Yes, any government standards, rules and policies that apply to records, also apply to emails. An email is a State record if it was sent or received in the course of official business of a public office.

2. Do we have to keep all emails we send or receive?

No, not all emails need to be saved as records. Emails that are of a personal or ephemeral nature need not be kept and care should be taken to ensure that these emails are regularly deleted. Some emails may be work related; however they are of a transitory nature. An example of this kind of record is an email asking if a meeting is still scheduled for that day.

To decide whether an email should be kept as a record, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does it approve or authorise actions?
  • Is it a formal communication between staff relating to work?
  • Does it signify a policy change or development?
  • Does it commit my organisation to an arrangement or to a business deal?
  • Does it contain advice, provide guidance or constitute formal communications with people inside or outside the organisation?
  • Am I required to act upon it?
  • Is it external correspondence I have received relating to work?
  • Is it something that I have sent for a business purpose?
  • Is it something I have used at work to make a decision?
  • If I left this job tomorrow, would my successor need the information in this message to continue with this matter?
  • Is the matter to which the message relates one which may be reviewed or audited later?

For more specific advice on which emails to keep, refer to your public office's records management policy and procedures

3. Is it ok to keep emails in an email archiving solution?

There are some advantages to keeping email in an email archiving solution (also known as email vaults or email archiving systems), mainly relating to freeing up storage space from email inboxes; however these systems are often not suitable for the management of emails as records. Email archiving solutions can be found lacking when differentiating between business critical, informational and other kind of emails. If stored in an email archiving system, the email is kept unrelated from records in other formats and systems and generally only the sender, recipient or email administrator can access the email. This means that other staff may not know of the existence and a gap may occur in the record. Other problems that may be encountered when saving emails in an email archiving system is that automated classification of content is not foolproof and it can be difficult to assign retention periods to the emails.

4. What are the benefits of classifying emails and keeping them in recordkeeping systems?

Benefits to the individual include:

  • access to the records needed to perform a job. The email is registered and classified in a recordkeeping system, making it accessible and manageable
  • having email and all related records linked together to produce a complete file. If records are scattered, such as when emails are saved to individual email accounts, a complete file is not possible as there is no common access to the emails.

Benefits for the organisation include:

  • the email being disposed of in accordance with approved disposal authorities,
  • all staff can easily locate records when required, and
  • email server space is reduced by the routine deletion of all emails, as official records are accessible from the recordkeeping system.

5. Should all replies to an email be captured separately?

If there is an exchange of emails on one topic, originating from one email, then it is best to save the email when the sequence or 'conversation' is complete, saving time and storage space. However, care should be taken to ensure that the sequence is complete.

If the email is long and complex you may wish to capture emails individually, or at appropriate points in the sequence, for example when the subject changes.

6. What is the best way to manage digital signatures in an email?

There are two types of digital signatures that may be applied to email. One is an encryption or digital seal, and the other is a scanned image of an actual signature.

When dealing with encrypted email it is best to save the email to a recordkeeping system once the email has been unencrypted. If the email contains a scanned copy of a signature, ensure that the signature can be seen once registered into a recordkeeping system. If the signature can not be seen, it is recommended to print the email and maintain a paper or scanned version which shows the image of the signature.

7. How long must I keep emails for?

There is no 'blanket' retention period for emails. As with all records, emails need to be kept at minimum for as long as indicated in the relevant General or Functional Retention and Disposal Authority.

8. Why should I use a template when sending emails?

Emails are often seen as informal means of communication. However in regards to business transactions, it is recommended that templates are used to prompt people to ensure they record all necessary information as well as to remind people that care needs to be taken with what is said in business emails. Templates help to differentiate between official correspondence as well as easily recording vital information. Examples of email templates can be found on the State Records website.

9. What do I do with attachments?

Attachments to emails should always be captured. There are two ways in which attachments can be captured. The first is to capture the attachment separately from the email and cross reference the attachment with the email so they can be linked together. Capturing attachments separately can also mean easier retrieval.

The second method of capturing attachments is to register the email and attachment as one record. If they are being printed out then the email and the attachment should physically be attached together.

10. When can I delete an email?

  • If an email is personal, junk or spam then it may be deleted at any time.
  • If an email sent by you needs to be kept as a record (see Q2) you can delete it from your Sent folder once you have captured it into the recordkeeping system.
  • If an email needs to be kept as a record and you are the only or main recipient within the public office, you are responsible for saving the record into the recordkeeping system and then you can delete your copy of the email.
  • If you are one of a group of people copied into an email and are not responsible for capturing it, then you can delete the email once you are sure that is has been captured into the recordkeeping system.

It is the responsibility of all NSW government public offices to ensure that email is appropriately dealt with as a record. Corporate policies must be established for the successful integration of email management into your records management program. The corporate policies should include information on managing emails, assigning responsibility and addressing the issues of education and training regarding email management.

For more information on keeping emails as records, please see Managing the Message: Guidelines on managing formal and informal communications as records

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2008.
First published 2008
This work may be freely reproduced and distributed for most purposes, however some restrictions apply.
ISSN 1440-3978