Email as Records


The Smithsonian defines records as any official, recorded information, regardless of medium or characteristics which are created, received, and maintained by a Smithsonian museum, office, or employee. This includes all email sent or received from official Smithsonian accounts. That said, the vast majority of emails are routine, informational, or logistical in nature and may be of reference value for only a few minutes or a few months, and can often be deleted when no longer of use.

A small percentage of emails are considered permanent records to be transferred to the Smithsonian Institution Archives. These emails provide significant documentation of a unit’s policies, projects, and other activities that does not exist in other paper or electronic files. Large amounts of permanently valuable email are often found in the accounts of upper-level administrators and unit directors, but may also be found in other email accounts depending on the workflows, communication preferences, and filing systems of individuals and units.

Video training on Email Management at the Smithsonian [staff only] is also available.

Identifying and Maintaining Permanent Email

The Records Disposition Schedules apply to email just as they do to paper and other electronic files. They help determine what types of documentation should be maintained permanently. Generally, routine emails and those sent or maintained for purely informational, reference, or logistical purposes are excluded from the permanent records.

Keep in mind that many emails are widely distributed to staff and do not need to be kept by all recipients. The email equivalent of a central file should be established. Within a unit or cross-unit group, it should be determined where permanent emails of a particular type will be maintained - perhaps in the account of the director, administrative officer, project lead, committee chair or in a resource account.

It is recommended that folders be established within an email account to separate permanent emails from those that can be deleted when no longer useful. Set up folders by subject matter, project, or other useful divisions. These folders can either be used exclusively for the permanent records while the temporary records remain in the inbox or a subfolder for the permanent records can be created.

Much of the guidance provided in Setting Up Electronic Files can be applied to email accounts.

Deleting Email

It is highly recommended that staff regularly delete or weed email that is no longer needed. Reducing the overall size of an email account through weeding will increase efficiency in finding messages. In addition, an email account may be subject to a time-based automatic deletion of messages in the future, requiring that additional actions be taken to save crucial older messages. Frequently weeding and organizing email messages now will make the task less daunting in the future.

In addition to the routine, informational, reference, and logistical emails mentioned above and those types of emails identified as temporary records according to the Records Disposition Schedules, the following types of email messages can be weeded when no longer needed for administrative or reference purposes (unless noted otherwise, these guidelines apply to both the sender and the recipient):

  • Messages received via a distribution list or listserv (recipient only), including Smithsonian-wide Email Announcements.
  • Messages received from another Smithsonian staff person to which no reply is required (recipient only).
  • Messages on which the recipient was copied (copied recipient only).
  • Calendar items.
  • Messages forwarding a link with no additional substantive content.
  • Messages captured in threads of later messages.
  • Personal email, jokes, advertisements, spam, and other email unrelated to work should be deleted as soon as possible.

Sorting email by sender is often an efficient means of identifying messages for weeding.

Staff may also use keyword searches to help identify messages which can be deleted. See Managing Email: Keywords for Identifying Specific Types of Email for Possible Deletion for sample guidelines and keywords.

Remember that, in many systems, deleting email is a two-step process. After deleting the email, staff may still need to empty the "Deleted Items" folder. If there is any uncertainty as to whether records can be weeded or must be kept, contact the unit's Archives’ liaison.

Transferring Email to the Smithsonian Institution Archives

As with other types of electronic records, methods of transferring permanently valuable email to the Archives vary depending on the amount, frequency, and location of email, as well as how easily it can be separated from the rest of the account and the technology currently available for conducting the transfer process. The first step is to contact the unit’s Archives’ liaison to discuss the email that should potentially be transferred. An electronic records archivist will join the discussion to determine the logistics of the transfer.

In some cases, the Archives will initiate the transfer of email directly from the Office of the Chief Information Officer after a staff person has left the Smithsonian. This situation most often applies to upper-level administrators and unit directors, but may also include curators, scientists, historians, program heads, and other staff.

Once the email is received at the Archives, access may be restricted to the unit and those who receive permission from the unit for 15 years. After the restriction period, the most current available software will be used to identify and redact sensitive personally identifiable information (sPII) prior to providing access to a researcher; however, the email will not be weeded by Archives’ staff. It is highly recommended that, at the very least, personal emails are deleted prior to transferring an entire account to the Archives.

Please note that the “auto-archiving” feature in the email software simply saves the email to a location outside of the email account. It does not transfer the email to the Smithsonian Institution Archives.