Politics, Transparency, and Email: Lessons Learned from Trying to Preserve the Historical Record

By Angela White

This post is the ninth in our Spring 2016 series on processing digital materials.


My first chance to process an email collection came when a small nonprofit organization[1] in the mid-Atlantic selected my institution as the home for its records. The organization was closing its doors after several decades of advocacy around government transparency. My contact, Fergus[2], made clear from the beginning that he wanted us to preserve the organization’s email as part of the project. I explained the features of ePADD, emphasizing the filtering mechanisms and the ability to isolate items that contained sensitive Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Based on Fergus’s enthusiasm, I naively assumed that the employees’ commitment to transparency extended to their own inboxes.

When Fergus announced our intentions to current and former employees, the protests began pouring in. There were several reasons for concern: many employees used their work email addresses for personal correspondence, the accounts contained information from a number of confidential mailing lists, and there were conversations with politically-active people who had expectations of confidentiality. At this point, I also learned that most employees of the organization no longer had access to their accounts and were unable to clean up sensitive information.

I knew ePADD could make short work of the sensitive PII and mailing lists. However, the private conversations were a big part of the appeal—I couldn’t promise to filter those, but I did offer to restrict the accounts for a period of time and emphasized that access would be onsite only. Later I suggested that transfers could be opt-in, but the damage had already been done. The last straw came when federal government staff got wind of the plan and began voicing their concerns. We had to cancel the project in the face of overwhelming opposition and continued on with the rest of the collection.

There are a number of lessons to take away from this email debacle: do not assume that the organization’s representative is aware of the potential problems with email; make sure that all affected employees have the opportunity to pull out anything personal; and speak face-to-face with members of the organization whenever possible, preferably with a demonstration of ePADD. As a result of our experience, I’m developing a set of questions to guide initial conversations about email:

  1. Does your organizations have any official policies related to use of its email accounts? Is email expected to be part of the public record? How are employees notified of this policy and when?
  2. What is the email culture at your organization? Do employees routinely use work email for personal reasons?
  3. What kind of work-related email exchanges take place on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis? Are any of these of a sensitive political nature? Will any of the work-related content need to be restricted? For how long?
  4. Are the accounts of former employees retained? For how long? How long do they retain access to the account after leaving the organization?

Taking email records from individuals who continue to work in the field requires a sensitive touch. I’ll be better prepared next time to deal with the very real difficulties of convincing people to pry open their inboxes. Despite the technical challenges of digital preservation, I’ve discovered that acquisition is sometimes the hardest part of the process.

[1] The organization has been anonymized to prevent further consternation for former employees.

[2] Name changed to protect the harried.


Angela WhiteAngela White is the Philanthropic Studies Archivist at IUPUI in Indianapolis. She collects the records of nonprofit organizations and fundraisers to support the work of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is currently in conversations with a number of individuals about accessioning their email records.