Printouts of e-mail records are piling up at agencies

Printouts of e-mail records are piling up at agencies

Agency appraisal and public comment on file retention take so long that agencies make their own decisions about record-keeping, Owen Ambur said.

Saving messages in a document management system eliminates clutter and archiving confusion, Energy official says

Agencies are experiencing a warehouse logjam from printing out e-mail messages as official records, and the jam could grow as some congressional offices refuse postal mail because of the anthrax scare.

Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) last month asked constituents to correspond only by e-mail for the time being.

Agencies are 'not supposed to be putting [e-mail printouts] in shoeboxes,' said Michael Miller, director of the Modern Records Program at the National Archives and Records Administration.

But even irrelevant e-mail about a meeting in the conference room must be saved until NARA approves its disposal.

'The amount of material I would consider transitory is somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent,' Miller said.

The General Records Schedule 20 says that NARA can tell any agency which electronic records to keep and when to throw them away.

'Agencies are supposed to come to us for approval. They are not allowed to destroy anything without the approval of the archivist of the United States,' Miller said. Under NARA rules, an agency has two years after starting a new records series to request a disposition authorization.

For example, the Defense Department's new office of counterterrorism can collect e-mail for two years before making an appraisal of its value and asking NARA for approval to delete it.

'Each agency proposes a retention period,' Miller said. The Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs Department, for instance, keep certain records about deceased people for more than 65 years.

Long process

NARA publishes a Federal Register notice of an agency's intent to keep certain files for a certain period of time, and the public can comment. But it takes so long for appraisal and comment that agencies make their own decisions about record-keeping, said Owen Ambur, a systems analyst at the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1997, the Public Citizen nonprofit group took archivist John W. Carlin to court, arguing that GRS 20 wrongly allowed agencies to dispose of their electronic records after printing them. An appeals court upheld the mandate in 1999.

Ambur said it seemed at the time that NARA was going to enforce turning in records for evaluation in a timely manner so there would be fewer file cabinets of printouts.

Although NARA is doing its best to make sure agencies turn in e-mail records within two years, Miller said, it's up to the agencies to realize there is a mounting problem.

Ambur said he thinks the real problem is blatant misuse of e-mail. At the Interior Department, he said, each employee has a certain amount of storage on the mail server, but few bother to delete their overflowing e-mail or archive it to their local drives.

'People should start using e-mail appropriately, for quick, informal messages,' Ambur said. 'Then we can get rid of the stupidity.'

But Dee Jensen, director of records in the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste at the Energy Department, said e-mail should be kept in a document management system, neither printed out for storage nor archived to local drives.

He said his office, by court order, has to save all its e-mail. In January, the office will begin installing a new document management system to manage messages and other kinds of electronic records. It will use Lotus Notes running on Dell Computer Corp. systems under Microsoft Windows NT.

'Users will save eons of time and a whole bunch of gray hair,' Jensen said.

At the moment, his 1,800 users in offices in Las Vegas and Washington scan printed records into their computers. 'We had a good handle on hard copy to electronic,' he said. 'But what do we do with this burgeoning e-mail? I get about 70 a day,' and the office receives about 117,000 messages a week.

'It's a pretty hefty chunk,' Jensen said. 'You have to look at the culture you're operating in. The majority of communication is e-communication.'

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