3 Archival Principles for Emails

archival principles graphic

The following blog entry is the first in a series exploring archival issues of relevance from both historical and contemporary perspectives. For more information about the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing’s archives and collections, please visit our website at http://www.nursing.upenn.edu/history

 By Tiffany Hope Collier & Jessica Clark

It seems we can’t avoid discussing emails these days.  The last few months have seen both a movie studio executive and a Veteran Affairs administrator lose their jobs for mocking and ridiculing people in emails they assumed were private.The Ferguson police department, already dealing with a massive PR crisis for its handling of the Michael Brown incident, faced further embarrassment as the Department of Justice’s report highlighted a culture of racial bias reflected in email messages obtained.  And then there is the latest brouhaha over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her exclusive use of a personal email account to conduct official business. What these situations illustrate is a troubling ignorance on storing and saving emails. Although this issue is quite expansive and complex, we believe there are three archival principles that illustrate the importance of utilizing organizational systems and hierarchies to preserve digital history.

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The first principle is that email correspondence equals paper correspondence. Businesses rely on email by default in most instances of communication, and our personal lives are littered with electronic missives filled with emoticons and other indecipherable glyphs that are transmitted at staggering rates. Working in an archive, we know that many people are not aware that born-digital files should be saved as historical records. For some reason, there is still the belief that if a file isn’t in hard copy form, then it isn’t as important, but our world has changed and we must get serious about saving digital correspondence for future generations. With paper files, there are established standards of preservation in place that have evolved over centuries, but digital archival practices are still in their infancy. It doesn’t help that technology changes at a dizzying pace. For instance, a decade ago the palm pilot and IPod were innovative devices and now both are almost antediluvian relics.  We advise that emails should be archived in a format that isn’t going to be subject to the latest technological whims. Many IT departments and archives still love tapes and disks for storage while the general public increasingly uses cloud infrastructures. Now we don’t think that you should go out frantically in search for that last remaining Radio Shack and scrounge for cassettes and tower computers to build makeshift servers, but when archiving emails you should save at least one copy in a format that will be the least susceptible to data loss and obsoletion (see the Library of Congress page on keeping personal email for more information).

The second archival principle is that the implementation of standardized procedures provides accountability and protection. While we are not naïve enough to think that every potential scandal, threat or injustice will be thwarted or minimized because of the transparency that email documentation provides, we do recognize that archival practices for digital correspondence provides a means of capturing and retaining information that can be retrieved for future reference.

Of course with this technology, there are increasing concerns about privacy. Healthcare industries are not immune from litigation, privacy concerns or HIPAA regulations with regards to emails between employees, employers, and patients. At a press conference to address the email controversy, Hillary Clinton stated that “no one wants their personal emails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy.” Yet in spite of the very real privacy concerns, the accountability that comes from email archives aids in building objective and accurate historical records.

Perhaps you don’t need the same email procedures in place that the State Department should, but you could create a simplified system of digital folders and organize emails based on their level of importance.  For example, your podiatry appointment reminder from last summer does not hold the same significance as the note from your boss informing you of a promotion. Saving career related emails would be important in crafting a personal archive, but it is not the sum of your life’s history. Personal correspondence that you want to retain can and should be organized.

box of archives

Box of unprocessed archival records (photo source: http://jenniferlasupremahecker.info/)

The third archival principle may also be the most obvious. We are a society inundated with data and our world’s hard drive is not infinite. Physical space is a prized commodity.  When we see organizations like the Internal Revenue Service printing emails nonstop it is concerning.  Organized approaches to saving email files that don’t rely on printing will reduce clutter and inefficiency. That is not to say that you should never print important or critical emails, but it is useful to implement retention schedules of deleting and archiving emails that do not rely on creating endless paper files in the process.

archival principles

So much of our future history will be gleaned from electronic correspondence. The next time you are confronted with a full inbox, don’t just hit select all and delete or even worse don’t mindlessly print and drown in paper files that will most likely not be retained. Take the time now to organize and archive important emails so all of this data is not lost in the years to come.

Stay tuned for more insight into archival practices and how they impact nursing and health care history and policy. Feel free to contact us as well if you have archival related questions or concerns. 

Tiffany Hope Collier is a freelance writer, editor and graphic designer. She is managing editor of Echoes and Evidence and the administrator for the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing. Jessica Clark is a public historian and the archivist of the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing.

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