NARA finalizes rule on short-term e-records

The National Archives and Records Administration has issued a final rule that gives agencies guidance on how to define and maintain short-term electronic records, including e-mail.

In a notice dated Feb. 21, NARA says the rule strikes a balance between making government workers aware of the importance of maintaining e-records while not overly burdening agencies’ e-mail systems.

"NARA has concluded that government employees are more likely to take seriously their responsibility of retaining e-mail records of long-term or permanent value, either by printing and filing or by investing in electronic record-keeping systems to retain a smaller percentage of e-mail records, if they do not have to spend time on the very high volume of transitory and very short-term e-mail records that cross their desktops every day," the rule said. "Accordingly, NARA believes that this regulation “… will serve to improve the government's retention and preservation of important e-mail records."

Under the rule, agencies can store transitory electronic records—those that have a shelf life of 180 days or less—on their e-mail systems without the need to copy the record into a record-keeping system.

The rule defines these records generally as e-mails with minimal or no documentary or evidential value, such as routine requests for information, publications and copies of replies which require no administrative action, no policy decision and no special compilation or research for reply.

Also covered under the rule are documents that do not add any information to that contained in the transmitted material and records documenting routine activities containing no substantive information, such as routine notifications of meetings, scheduling of work-related trips and visits, and other scheduling related activities.

The final rule does not stray from the draft proposal NARA issued in November 2004, despite comments from a handful of agencies that said the rule could unintentionally result in the destruction of important documents with long-term significance.

These comments urged NARA to require agencies to print out and retain all e-mail communications, arguing that because many agencies and their employees do not properly maintain all e-mail records for their prescribed retention period, many valuable records are being lost prematurely.

NARA, while acknowledging these concerns, said requiring agencies to maintain all e-mail communications would be far too burdensome.

"To require the creation of a record copy of all of these e-mail messages is not only extremely costly and burdensome, but may also be partly responsible for any current noncompliance with existing e-mail retention requirements: i.e., the largely pointless exercise of expending significant time and effort to print and file hundreds of transitory e-mail messages every week may be a contributing factor to what leads many government employees to forgo printing any of their email messages," the rule said.

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