How do I know when an email is a record?

Electronic messages are subject to the same tests as paper documents to determine their record status. Email created or received pursuant to the transaction of University business or in the fulfillment of its educational, administrative, business, or legal obligations is a record. Messages with continuing value, such as those that document administrative decision-making, committee, faculty, and campus activities are considered records. Examples of messages that may have continuing value are those which:

  • approve or authorize actions or expenditures;
  • are formal communications between staff, such as correspondence or memoranda relating to official business;
  • signify a policy change or development;
  • create a precedent, such as messages issuing instructions or advice;
  • relate to the substantive business of the work unit or University;
  • involve negotiations on behalf of the University;
  • have value for other people or the work unit as a whole.

Faculty correspondence, research data, and external scholarly communications which are not of an administrative nature may still have significant archival value.

Unwanted or unneeded junk mail (spam), personal messages, and most listserv messages, are not University records and should be routinely identified, separated, and removed from the email system. Such email may be considered a “nonrecord”.

What do I do with emails that are considered records?

Electronic messages whose loss would pose a significant fiscal, legal, or administrative risk to the University if they could not be accessed or read should not be deleted unless retained in an acceptable paper format.

Electronic copies can be deleted if paper copies are maintained.

What do I do with emails that do not have significant value?

Messages with short term value (only needed for a limited time or purpose) should be deleted and purged once their usefulness ends. Such messages include:

  • those distributed to a large number of staff for informational purposes only, such as news bulletins, circulars, meeting notices, copies of extracts of documents;
  • drafts;
  • notices of events that have already occurred;
  • personal messages and announcements not work related;
  • junk mail.

How can email be considered an authentic record?

The issue of authenticity is tied to the concepts of integrity and trustworthiness. Questions of authenticity often arise in legal proceedings, with courts considering the reliability and accuracy of the process or system used to produce or reproduce and maintain the records, rather than its format.

If a record is created during the routine course of business and for specific purpose, it is typically considered authentic. Certain data elements of email (metadata) will identify changes to content and structure, thus affecting its authenticity and completeness.

Rules of evidence and laws such as the Uniform Photographic Copies of Business and Public Records as Evidence Act allow records to be accepted by the courts without condition; however, the accuracy of the records' content still may be challenged.

Are email records handled differently than paper?

Email should be managed by its content, not its format. Whether or not one keeps an email message depends on its value, subject, and function.

Can anyone read my email?

The Office of Information Technology has a policy on Computing and Electronic Communications at Duke University: Security & Privacy, which says, in part, "the University may find it necessary to access and disclose information from computer and network users' accounts to the extent required by law, to uphold contractual obligations or other applicable University policies, or to diagnose and correct technical problems. For this reason, the ultimate privacy of messages and files cannot be ensured." Therefore, it is advisable not to use email to communicate confidential or sensitive information.

See Access and Security FAQs for additional information on this topic.