How long do e-mail messages stay fresh?

In Connecticut, the Office of the Public Records Administrator and State

Archives oversees the handling of all public records, including e-mail messages.

When it came to deciding what records should be preserved, officials

first had to determine whether e-mail was covered by the state's legal definition

of a public record. The state defines a record as "any recorded data or

information relating to the conduct of the public's business prepared, owned,

used or received by a public agency, whether such data or information be

handwritten, typed, tape-recorded, printed, photostatted, photographed or

recorded by any method."

Next, officials issued policy guidelines detailing three e-mail categories

with retention schedules for each:

1. Transitory messages — Casual and routine communications that are

similar to telephone conversations. Although they are public records, they

can be disposed of immediately without the approval of the Office of the

Public Records Administrator and State Archives.

2. Less-than-permanent records — Those messages that have value for

a defined period of time, such as records pertaining to a pending legal

case. These communications must be kept in a hard-copy or electronic format

that can be retrieved and interpreted for the legal retention period. Municipalities

and state agency officials can destroy the records only after receiving

signed approval from the Office of the Public Records Administrator and

State Archives.

3. Permanent records — Agency decisions that have enduring historical

value. They must be held permanently in the form of a hard-copy printout

or microfilm that meets the state's microfilm standards.

In the end, government employees will be trusted to follow these guidelines.

However, agency heads and supervisors are responsible for training their

employees to distinguish between the different mail categories, use retention

schedules and obtain approvals for destroying records. Those officials are

also responsible for maintaining accessible records databases that include

all media and processing records requests from citizens.

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