Many archiving challenges remain

When devising strategies to streamline e-mail archiving, agencies face formidable technology and cultural challenges

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When devising strategies to streamline their e-mail archiving processes, government agencies face formidable technology and cultural challenges.

Take, for example, the National Archives and Records Administration's project to build an electronic records archive. A key challenge is to find a way to provide future access to e-mail and file attachments in scores of formats, including Novell Inc. GroupWise, IBM Corp.'s Lotus Notes, Adobe Systems Inc.'s PDF and Extensible Markup Language.

Previously, NARA required agencies to print e-mail records before submitting them, but last fall, it began officially accepting e-mail in electronic form under the Bush administration's Electronic Records Management e-government initiative.

When it comes online in 2008, the archive should provide access to electronic files including "a large volume of [e-mail] material," said Mark Gigue, a computer specialist at NARA. However, individuals who want to read the records must have the appropriate software to access those files, he said.

Providing ways to retrieve e-mail messages from an archive in the future is half the problem. Finding an efficient way to get them in there in the first place is the other half.

The city of Orlando, Fla., for example, is deploying a spam filter available in Lotus Notes/Domino 6 to pare down the more than 30,000 e-mail messages it handles daily.

Spam, or unsolicited bulk e-mail, accounts for 45 percent of the more than 30 million e-mails sent daily, according to Radicati Group Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif.-based research firm.

But weeding out the spam is not so easy. In Orlando, the city's software screens e-mail based on particular words, and it is possible to eliminate "a valid piece of e-mail that just happens [to include] that word," said John Matelski, Orlando's deputy chief information officer.

The "bottom line is we can filter it," but a staff member must monitor the system to make sure valid e-mail messages are not eliminated by mistake, he said.

Automatic filtering of so-called personal e-mail from an organization's e-mail holdings can be even more difficult, and most organizations, including the city of Orlando, rely on users to delete such messages.

Some products have complicated rules that can be used to screen personal messages, such as singling out messages from senders whose names appear on a personal contacts list, said Marcel Nienhuis, a market analyst at the Radicati Group.

However, such efforts can be fraught with complications.

"What happens if you combine personal and impersonal" information? asked Tim Shinkle, records management industry director at Documentum Inc.

For some agencies, the toughest challenges involve the cultural changes required. There is a pervasive attitude, especially in the government, that everything "that gets into a box somewhere is a record and should be kept, and there isn't enough storage on the planet to handle all the e-mail that the federal government gets," said Charles Russell, chief of the Customer Services Division in the Army Reserve.

Education aimed at countering this attitude by teaching users to regularly delete messages that are not official records is an "ongoing effort for us," he said.

The reserve handles about 20,000 e-mail messages daily using Open Text Corp.'s iRIMS records management application to archive critical files. The system allows individuals to use a Microsoft Corp. Outlook- or Web-based client to move e-mail records into the archive.

However, the reserve will be transitioning from iRIMS later this year to the Army Records Information Management System, a new Web-based system that will be used throughout the Army, Russell said.

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