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Common Questions About Electronic Mail

This document informs local government employees of their responsibilities for managing records made or received through electronic mail (e-mail). It is divided into five sections dealing with questions that have been raised about e-mail. New questions and their answers will be added to this list as they are received. If you have questions about e-mail, please send them to the localrecs@ohiohistory.org

This document has been adapted from the United States EPA's It's In the Mail document. We appreciate their efforts and thank them for allowing us to adapt their work.

SECTION A: E-MAIL AS A RECORD

Q1. When are e-mail messages records?

A1. You should treat e-mail messages the same way you treat paper correspondence. An e-mail message is a record if it documents the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the office.

Q2. Do I have to manage incoming and outgoing e-mail as records?

A2. Yes, you should apply the standard described above to both incoming and outgoing e-mail. The reason is that both sender and recipient of e-mail messages have the responsibility to document their activities and those of their organizations. Both the sender and the recipient have to determine whether a particular e-mail message is a necessary part of that documentation.

Q3. Are e-mail systems reliable enough for transmitting official messages?

A3. Yes, e-mail systems are highly reliable for transmitting messages. However, you should use e-mail for business only when you are reasonably sure that the message will not be altered after transmission. Consider the nature and sensitivity of the message, the technology involved, and the persons with whom you communicate when you decide to use e-mail for business.

Q4. How can e-mail be an official record if it is not signed?

A4. A signature does not make something a record. Many types of records, such as manuals, reports, photographs, and maps, do not contain signatures, but they can still be records.

Q5. If an e-mail record is sent to several recipients, which copy is the official record?

A5. It depends. Different copies of the same message may be records. If you take any official action related to a message, and if the message is needed for adequate and complete documentation of the action, the message would be a record in your office, regardless of whether copies are retained elsewhere.


SECTION B: RETAINING THE COMPLETE E-MAIL MESSAGE

Q1. Are there special requirements for retaining e-mail messages as records?

A1. The basic requirements that apply to all records apply to e-mail records as well. However, there are some specific requirements for records made or received through e-mail. You should make sure that:

  1. the e-mail record includes transmission data that identifies the sender and the recipient(s) and the date and time the message was sent and/or received;

  2. when e-mail is sent to a distribution list, information identifying all parties on the list is retained for as long as the message is retained; and

  3. if the e-mail system uses codes, or aliases to identify senders or recipients, a record of their real names is kept for as long as any record containing only the codes or aliases. For example, if you are communicating with someone via the Internet, and their e-mail address does not indicate who they are (e.g., the address is JerryR@...) then a record must be kept of who they are. This might be done simply by always including their full name in the body of the message.

Q2. Why is it necessary to keep the transmission data about the sender, receiver, date and time of the e-mail?

A2. You would not delete the names of the sender and addressee, the date, or a time stamp from a letter on paper. The data identifying the sender and recipient(s), the time and date the message was sent, and, on the recipient(s) copy, the time and date it was received are equally essential elements that constitute a complete e-mail record.

Q3. What about attachments to an e-mail message? Do I have to keep them as well?

A3. Yes, you do. If a message qualifies as part of the documentation of your activities, you need to make sure that related items that provide context for the message are maintained as well. This includes attachments. You would keep them under the same conditions that you would if they were paper attachments to a paper memo or incoming letter.

Q4. If my outgoing message is a record, should I ask for a return receipt to make sure that the person I sent it to got it?

A4. It is not necessary to ask for a return receipt or read receipt in e-mail any more than it is necessary in hard copy. We don't send all letters certified mail. If it is important to document for the record the time that a message was opened, then that receipt must be retained along with the message for as long as the message is retained. You also need to have some means of linking the receipt to the message so it is clear what outgoing message the receipt documents.

Q5. Do I need to retain both the original message and the reply?

A5. The requirement is to create and maintain an understandable record documenting activities. Some replies to e-mail messages contain enough information from the original message that they can stand on their own, but most do not. The simplest way to ensure understandability of e-mail messages that will become part of the record is to incorporate the original message in any reply and maintain them as a unit. If e-mail is sent back and forth and the most recent message has the entire sequence of messages, you need to keep only the final message (including the previous messages and replies) as long as it also contains attachments and other data such as the sender, receivers, date, and time, that are necessary for a complete record.


SECTION C: MAINTENANCE AND RETENTION OF E-MAIL MESSAGES

Q1. How long do I need to keep e-mail records?

A1. Retain e-mail records in accordance with your office's file plan and the records disposition schedules. The exact length of time will vary depending on the activity that the message documents.

Q2. What if the message does not qualify as a record?

A2. Delete e-mail that is not a record when no longer of use.

Q3. Where do I keep e-mail records?

A3. You should store e-mail records in a recordkeeping system. This system may be either paper or electronic. In either case, the recordkeeping system must:

  1. logically relate or group records in accordance with your office's file plan;

  2. ensure the records are accessible to authorized persons throughout their life;

  3. support retention of the records for as long as required;

  4. facilitate destruction of records on schedule; and

  5. enable transfer of those records with permanent retention value to the State Archives.

Q4. Can e-mail records be kept on backup tapes or disks?

A4. No, backups created to facilitate restoration of a system or file in case of accidental or unintentional loss are generally ill-suited for recordkeeping purposes.

Q5. Do I need to retain both an electronic and hard copy for the same e-mail message?

A5. No, if you retain the entire record in either form, and it is properly filed, you do not need to retain both electronic and hard copies.


SECTION D: ACCESS TO E-MAIL MESSAGES

Q1. Does the Ohio public records law apply to e-mail messages?

A1. Yes, e-mail is subject to the Ohio public records law.


SECTION E: WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?

Q1. Will we ever have an easy way to maintain e-mail records electronically?

A1. Electronic management of records is not easy at this point. State Archives and the LGR Program are closely monitoring work in this area, including work by the U.S. Department of Defense, that are addressing the requirements issue.

http://www.ohiohistory.org/resource/lgr/LGRemailQA.html || Last modified Tuesday, 26-Jul-2005 12:37:31 Eastern Daylight Time
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