Electronic Records and Email

Modern records such as email, word processing and spreadsheet documents, websites and digital images affect our lives every day. They represent the transition from analog (paper and microfilm) to digital media as recordkeeping tools — especially over the last 20 years.

Duke University uses modern records to inform the community of important events, pay its employees, purchase goods and supplies, track patients' progress, accept applications from potential students and teach current students.

With the influx of modern records comes the need to manage them, but electronic records and email are more challenging to manage and preserve than the traditional analog forms. Whereas paper records can endure on their own without much human intervention, electronic records require routine and planned attention to survive and remain accessible.

The staffs of the Duke University Archives, the Duke University Medical Center Archives and the School of Information & Library Science at the University of North Carolina (UNC) completed a three-year grant project called "Managing the Digital University Desktop." The project studied computer file management practices in academic units and administrative offices at the two campuses.

One of the outcomes of the project was data from an email usage survey conducted in fall 2002. Nearly 4,000 respondents at the two campuses provided information on email habits and concerns. From the data, we developed a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs). In some cases, two versions of a response were developed to address public records issues at UNC.

The challenges of managing email and other modern records will not be solved with FAQs. We hope the FAQs will elicit discussion and collaboration between system administrators, email users and the Duke University Archives and Medical Center Archives. In addition, the FAQs should give users some general guidance on practical ways to manage their email.

The FAQs are excerpts from the full set of FAQs developed for the grant project. None of the FAQs is intended to serve as a silver bullet for managing one's email and other modern records. They are intended to help users name and organize their materials, retrieve them easily in the future and identify those items that should be maintained for specific lengths of time or archived for posterity.