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Subject: Email, e-records, culture of recordkeeping--view of past and future user (LONG!!)
From: Maarja Krusten <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Records Management Program <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 31 Jul 2005 13:38:26 -0400

text/plain (51 lines)

I've been thinking about the comment that Bill Roach made on 7/25 about faxes, xerox copies, electronic records, etc.  From the end user perspective, the culture of record keeping has been affected much more by the disappearance of secretaries and the changeover to electronic records than by faxes, xeroxes, etc.

I'll use White House record keeping as an example.  I'll draw in my examples from records created by Presidents of both parties because I happen to be a student of Presidential records.  And I once worked with such records at NARA.  My agency occasionally issues reports about executive branch record keeping (I'll post links to some of them separately tomorrow) but I'm not drawing on any of those reports in this post.  This is just me, reflecting my own longterm research in WH records.


Creation of executives' internal and external correspondence required third party assistance.  A secretary or typist typically prepared letters, memoranda, notes, internal reports, etc. on behalf of the executive, creating ribbon copies and multiple carbon copies.   In well administered offices, the copies bore file markings and indications of where cross referenced materials were filed.   For example, the White House Central Files system used during the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations*I’m limiting this to the pre-computer age*made it easy to track down documents despite the lack of electronic record keeping back then.  See and

NARA only has a few digitized images of these types of letters on its website *  not all of them have central filing notations but I picked one of them which does. Here are links to an incoming and outgoing letter from the Kennedy White House in 1963.

For a letter from President John F. Kennedy in the White House Central Files, see and second page of letter at .  The letter from JFK is to the sister of a U.S. serviceman, Specialist James McAndrew, who was killed in an helicopter crash in Vietnam while serving as an advisor in 1963.  This predates the military build up in Vietnam which took place later in the 1960s.  The sister’s letter, which asks about the use of advisors in Vietnam, is at and

If you look at the top page of JFK’s letter, you see a ND marking which refers to the National Defense category within the White House Central Files subject categories.  Although the sister’s name is Bobbie Lou Pendergrass, the top page of the outgoing letter also cross references her brother’s name.

Over time, electrostatic copies replaced the carbons but filing and marking procedures remained the same.

Archivists and historians have learned to use this White House system. However, at the time the correspondence was being created, most high level executives, such as the President, would not have been familiar with the details and conventions of filing (file plans, file codes, cross references).  They would see the document they signed, not what was done with copies afterwards.  To retrieve existing copies of a document, an executive would have to go through the secretary.  She would pull the item and place an outcard in the file, describing what had been removed, to whom it was charged out, and the date.  The chargeout card created a means of tracking removal and also an audit trail.

External access to federal government documents was limited prior to passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 and the Presidential Records Act.(PRA) of 1978      Until 1974, there was an expectation that the President or his family could control access to his White House records after he left office.  Since 1978, Presidential records fall under government control within libraries administered by NARA, not under personal, control.


Secretaries and file clerks largely have disappeared from offices.  Many people in the public and private sector now type a great deal of their own internal correspondence (which includes email) although some still occasionally use secretaries for external correspondence, official reports, etc.

As List members have observed here, records managers cannot be present everywhere, looking over the shoulders of employees as they type messages, notes, etc.  An official could use his work computer to use office word processing or spreadsheet programs to type items directly related to his work.  But he or she might choose to save the file only to an external drive (initially a floppy disk in the 1990s, now a CD, flash drive, etc.) rather than on his/her hard drive or within a document management system.  Wherever he or she chose to file it, there would be no third party secretary--a neutral third party--involved.

A similar situation exists with email.   Employees even might choose to bypass official email systems altogether, despite records management guidance.   See the last item, "It's Yahoo! baby,”  at .  I haven’t seen any follow up stories about this.   I don’t know what advice legal counsel may have issued to employees at the White House after this item was published.  But the story clearly has implications for management of current Presidential records.

The culture of executive branch record keeping potentially has been affected by other factors.  Some government lawyers, such as Stephen Garfinkel, former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, have noted changes in record keeping. Consider this extract from web published minutes of the U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, December 17-18, 2001:

“What is affected are Cabinet level records. Garfinkel warned that what was more ominous was what was not being created in Presidential recordkeeping today; for example, Clinton administration officials stopped maintaining a record of NSC meetings. Garfinkel asked the perennial question of which was better, quicker [earlier] access or more access.”  Another top government lawyer concurred that record keeping had changed, but added that the trend of “policymakers not keeping records” is probably more a fear of “investigations and independent counsels than reluctance to create a full historical record.”

As for document management systems, they rely on the creators of records to (1) choose to enter all relevant documents into it and (2) to enter accurate descriptive information in profiles.  Where once a few hundred well trained secretaries were responsible for document management, using standardized filing conventions, now an organization may have thousands of people creating and choosing whether or not to electronically file their own documents.

Consider the Pendergrass letter I linked to above. What if it was not Presidential but was sent from a federal agency, let’s say in 2003 rather than 1963.   You’re the FOIA officer.  Project ahead to 2014.  You receive a request for ALL information about the death of Specialist McAndrew in 2003.  Your records retention schedule requires  preservation of documents dealing with the matter, at least for a while.  Your lawyers expect you to retrieve all the responsive material.  If your EDMS allows full text document searching, you probably can locate the condolence letter pretty easily.  But what about associated internal and external correspondence, including email?  Not all of it might be releasable but you’d have to find it all to review it for disclosure.

Does everyone in your office use subject file codes such as those in the WHCF in entering information about documents in your EDMS?  Maybe not.  So let’s say in 2014, you can’t go to a single ND-9-2-2 file from 2003 the way you can go back to a subject file from 1963.

To do an electronic search of your EDMS, and ensure you find all responsive correspondence to review for the FOIA case, wouldn’t you have to sit down and consider all possible variables as search terms potentially used by the different people who discussed the case in writing (McAndrew, Pendergrass, Vietnam, condolence, helicopter, crash, accident, and so forth.)

The fact that you have full text search capability is a big help, but some of the internal correspondence might be cryptic.  There might be email notes with comments such as “On the chopper thing in VN.  Tuff qs from the sis * Gen. Clifton has referred  ltr to Col. Hoskott.  Army will coord. w/ State.  Will get back to you w/ ltr for Prez to sign March 2.”  In the old days, such a note would be more formal (see ) and a secretary might staple it to the incoming letter from Mrs. Pendergrass and place it in the ND-9-2-2 file.  Is your EDMS/ERMS set up so you could readily find such hypothetical, informally worded email and associate it with the other info on Specialist McAndrew?  Do all creators of documents enter consistently enter all necessary descriptive data in the document profiles?  Probably not.

In paper based record keeping, you could leaf through the old ND-9-2-2 file for the time period in question and figure out variables.  Could you work around variables so readily with an electronic search?   To say nothing of trying to find electronic records saved only on hard drives because they were created prior to your organization implementing EDMS/ERMS.  Of course, as FOIA officer, you never could find discussions about McAndrew’s death if officials deliberately took them off system, by circulating comments and sending drafts to each other via outside web-based email such as Yahoo or AOL or Excite.


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