Have you ever lost an important personal email? Found yourself frustrated when trying to find that one email that had some morsel of important information, whether it was a family recipe, your vacation reservations, or photos of your grandkids? 

Email, sucks, by kristiewells on Flickr

In the records management and archive profession, we are acutely aware of how difficult email can be to manage on the long term. Though much of email can be ephemeral, or of temporary value, email is regularly used for conducting county business, sharing important information, collaborating on policy, and sharing historically significant information.  

Why Do We Care about Email Anyways?

On the short term, email can provide a written record of recent transactions between citizens and county government, and it can provide evidence to the public as to how current government business is being transacted. On the long term, email can document the county’s reaction to historic events, the development of significant policy decisions, and the work of elected officials.

While it is a more casual form of communication than records like press releases or formal reports, email captures the thought process behind the work the county does, and can provide additional context to more formal records.

How We Save Email Records

In 2010, Multnomah County implemented Google Apps for Government, a flavor of Gmail customized for the needs of government. While this solution has many benefits over the long term, using a cloud based email client has required us to plan differently for the way we preserve email as records. We can not rely on a vendor to store records for us indefinitely.

As part of our implementation of Google Apps for Government, Information Technology manages a back end system that filters spam and saves a copy of all emails sent and received. In our previous email system, it was up to each employee to analyze their email and decide whether or not to save it for public records reasons and to interpret our retention schedules to select the right retention series. In our current system, retention, or how long a public record needs to be kept, is managed through the aforementioned back end system. While this means that more crucial information is captured to comprise the public record of Multnomah County government, is also means that as part of the wide net we cast that we also catch unnecessary emails. We have determined that the payoff of having a more complete record is worth the extra effort of having to search a larger set of email to locate specific email records.

We’re currently developing a policy to schedule regular downloads from the back end system, which is hosted on Google servers, of emails that we will be storing permanently as part of county archives. These archival emails will be stored on county servers, and organized and maintained by Records Management and Archives. We are working together with Information Technology to maintain a list of users who create emails with potential archival value. Inclusion in this list is based on the roles these individuals play and their involvement in potentially historically significant activities.

Preservation

We’ve all seen software and websites come and go, and the risk of obsolescence is an issue for which records managers and archivists plan as part of their routine work. While Information Technology has the responsibility to manage computer systems, records managers and archivists have the responsibility to ensure that electronic records are accessible for their full retention period.

Breathe while reading your email! by m-c on Flickr
With email, we have been saving a copy of archival email in two formats: PST and MBOX. PST is a proprietary format used by Microsoft Outlook, and while we do not want to rely on Microsoft to keep developing software that will allow us to open PST files, in the short term we can use Outlook to access these email files, regardless of the fact that they were created in Gmail. MBOX files, in comparison to PST files, can be opened using a text editor, which is a standard part of all operating systems. These files do not need vendor dependent software in order to read the contents of the files, though this format is not viewable and browseable in a way that looks like modern email inboxes.

Access and Privacy

While we have a plan for preserving email, we are still working on selecting software that will allow researchers to directly access email records. Email is a multi-purpose tool, and email may include personal or protected information, particularly information related to human resources matters or performance reviews. Though this information is captured in a public system, employees retain certain rights to privacy with this type of information. We’re still working on a plan to provide access to email records without accidentally disclosing restricted information. While Information Technology works with the County Attorney to provide email records from current and recent employees in order to respond to public records and litigation requests, Records Management and Archives has the responsibility to provide access to historic email records. A policy for accessing this latter group of records is in development.

Conclusion

Email can provide significant documentation of the work the county does and of the services the county provides. Email presents significant challenges in preservation and access, and a unique set of tool is required to utilize these records for archival research. By working in conjunction with Information Technology, Multnomah County Records Management and Archives has the framework for capturing, preserving, and providing access to email records.

If you are interested in additional information on how Multnomah County Records Management is addressing email records, please feel free to contract Electronic Records Management Analyst Jenny Mundy at jennifer.mundy@multco.us.