Email has become an invaluable tool for conducting business at the university, but each university email is a public record, which means that it must be retained for a specific period of time and can’t always be deleted when you no longer need it. So while email has made university business easier and more efficient, the amount of email that must be organized, stored, deleted, and archived has grown to such astounding proportions that it has become an ever-larger part of every employees job.
Email as a Public Record
Email is a public record when it is sent or received in the process of transacting public business (drafts of emails are usually not considered public records). Public records are any “documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data‑processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions,” UNC being one of those “subdivisions” (NC G.S. §132-1). This means that the records we create belong to the commonwealth and are protected from premature destruction or destruction for nefarious purposes.
Email as a Permanent Record
You must manage your emails like you would your paper files; the state makes no distinction based on format—that’s the “regardless of physical form or characteristics” in the definition of a public record, above—it’s the content of an email that determines its retention period, not the fact that it’s an email.
As a public record, individual emails must be managed according to the General Records Retention and Disposition Schedule, which dictates how long you need to keep certain records. Some records are permanent while others are not. Determining what record types cover your emails means looking at the content of your emails, what the emails are about. For instance, emails written in the course of planning a conference are permanent, while emails scheduling recycling work order can be deleted after 1 year.
A good rule of thumb for each email is to ask: Does it perform or document an official action? It could be an email that initiates a project, assigns responsibility, dictates policy, or provides guidance. If the answer is, Yes, then it’s probably a permanent record. If the answer is, No, then it’s probably non-permanent. (See our webpage on Permanent Records.)
But not all emails related to a permanent record series are themselves permanent. Take the following example: According to the General Records Retention and Disposition Schedule, all documents related to the proposal and development of courses on campus are permanent records. An email that gives the go ahead for the creation of a new course or grants authority to a certain committee to evaluate course proposals for that department would be considered a permanent record. But emails that say, for instance, “Just a reminder, course proposals are due Wednesday,” or “Is the course development committee meeting at 1 or 1:20?” would not be considered permanent. It’s all based on the content of the message and whether or not it performs or documents an official action. (See our webpage on Email Retention).
What Emails Are You Responsible For?
You are responsible only for the emails you send. Those are the emails you have to manage according to the retention schedule.
One caveat: If you receive an email from an agency outside of the university, then you become responsible for that email and have to manage it accordingly. If it’s just an announcement of a professional conference or some similar email that doesn’t affect business in your office, then you know you will only have to keep it temporarily. But if it becomes an important factor in university business, such as policy instructions from a governing body (such as OSHA or the FDA), then you must retain and manage that email according to the schedule.
Tips for Reducing the Volume of Email
1. Copy only those who need to know.
2. Limit your use of “Reply All.”
3. Pick up the phone or stop by the person’s office to relay information.
4. Use social media to make announcements, that way there’s only one copy of that record instead of a copy in every inbox.
5. Instead of sending attachments, store the document on a shared server space and refer people to it there.
Sites to Visit
UARMS Email Guidelines
State “Managing Your Inbox” Tutorial
State Email Policy
State Guidelines for Email Retention and Disposition
The General Records Retention and Disposition Schedule