Messages sent, and received? Changing perspectives and policies on US federal email as record and the limits of archival accountability

  • Jesse A. JohnstonEmail author
  • David A. Wallace
  • Ricardo L. Punzalan
Original Paper


The 2016 US Presidential elections may have presented the most prominent illustration of email and recordkeeping in public perception, but they offer only the most recent and public story of emails as records. This article offers an overview of the development of email as a government record in the USA, as well as the evolving archival perspectives on email and political accountability. Archivists have been contending with email for over 30 years, and from its earliest days in the US political usage, email has presented a complex array of recordkeeping and archival challenges, and we trace the changing archival perspectives and regulatory situations around email as a record in the USA over the past three decades. In this investigation, we explore questions about how and why officials create or destroy email, how email records are appraised, and whether or not preserved emails can be meaningfully accessed. In light of these questions, we argue that the archival tenet of accountability is tenuous at best in the face of the changing technological and political challenges presented by email as a record.


Email Accountability Capstone Electronic recordkeeping Archives Appraisal 



  1. Aftergood S (2018) Hundreds of CIA email accounts deemed permanent records. Secrecy News Blog, Federation of American Scientists, 3 May. Accessed 28 Oct 2018
  2. Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President (1989) Declaration of Gordon Riggle, 6 FebruaryGoogle Scholar
  3. Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President (1993a) Opinion, 6 January. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (810 F. Supp. 335)Google Scholar
  4. Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President (1993b) Opinion, 13 August. U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit (1 F.3d 1274)Google Scholar
  5. Baron J (2003) The PROFS decade: NARA, e-mail and the courts. In: Ambacher B (ed) Thirty years of electronic records. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, pp 105–138Google Scholar
  6. Baron J, Payne N (2017) Dark archives and e-democracy: strategies for overcoming access barriers to the public record archives of the future. In: 2017 International conference for e-democracy and open government. IEEE.
  7. Bennett B, Halper E (2015) What you need to know about Hillary Clinton’s emails. The Los Angeles times, 13 October. Accessed 29 May 2018
  8. Blanton T (2015) America classifies way too much information—and we are all less safe for it. The Washington Post, 31 July. Accessed 20 May 2018
  9. Burleigh N (2016) The George W. Bush White House ‘lost’ 22 million emails. Newsweek, 12 September. Accessed 2 Feb 2019
  10. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (2007) Without a trace: the story behind the missing White House e-mails and violations of the presidential records act. Washington, DC. Accessed 28 May 2018
  11. CNN (2009) Millions of Bush administration e-mails recovered. 14 December. Accessed 2 Feb 2019
  12. Cocciolo A (2016) Email as cultural heritage resource: appraisal solutions from an art museum context. Rec Manag J 26:68–82. Google Scholar
  13. Cook T (1997) What is past is prologue: a history of archival ideas since 1898, and the future paradigm shift. Archivaria 43:17–63Google Scholar
  14. Cox R (2006) Ethics, accountability, and recordkeeping in a dangerous world. Facet, LondonGoogle Scholar
  15. Cox R, Wallace D (2002) Introduction. In: Cox R, Wallace D (eds) Archives and the public good: accountability and records in modern society. Quorum Books, Westport, pp 1–17Google Scholar
  16. Dawsey J, Peterson A (2017) Hundreds of White House emails sent to third Kushner family account. Politico, 2 October. Accessed 27 Oct 2018
  17. Eastwood T (1993) Reflections on the development of archives in Canada and Australia. In: McKemmish S, Upward F (eds) Archival documents: providing accountability through recordkeeping. Monash University, Melbourne, pp 27–39Google Scholar
  18. Gerstein J (2014) Senate passes W.H. records bill. Politico under the Radar Blog, 11 Sept. Accessed 27 Oct 2018
  19. Hamburger T (2007) Officials’ e-mails may be missing, White House says. Los Angeles Times, 12 April. Archived at,0,4800585.story?coll=la-home-headlines. Accessed 2 Feb 2019
  20. Hurley C (2005) Recordkeeping and accountability. In: McKemmish S et al (eds) Archives: recordkeeping in Society. Centre for Information Studies, Charles Stuart University, Wagga Wagga, pp 223–253CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hurley C (2006) Archivists and accountability. Arch Manuscr 34:82–111Google Scholar
  22. Iacovino L (1993) Reflections on Eastwood’s concept of democratic accountability and continuity. Arch Manuscr 21:30–47Google Scholar
  23. Iacovino L (2010) Archives as arsenals of accountability. In: Eastwood T, MacNeil H (eds) Currents of archival thinking. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, pp 181–212Google Scholar
  24. Linick S, McCullough C (2015) OIG Report, 17 July. Accessed 29 May 2018
  25. MacNeil H (2000) Trusting records: legal, historical, and diplomatic perspectives. Kluwer, LeidenCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Murray K, Prom C (2018) The future of email archives: a report from the task force on technical approaches for email archives. Council on Library and Information Resources, Washington, DC. Accessed 29 Oct 2018
  27. Pearce-Moses R (2005) A glossary of archival and records terminology, Society of American Archivists, Chicago, s.v. “Accountability,” Accessed 29 May 2018
  28. Pennock M (2006) Curating e-mails: a life-cycle approach to the management and preservation of e-mail messages. In: Ross S, Day M (eds) DCC digital curation manual. Accessed 29 Oct 2018
  29. Pontevolpe G, Salza S (2009) Keeping and preserving email. InterPARES 3 General Study 5. Accessed 29 May 2018
  30. Prom C (2011) Preserving email. Digital preservation coalition, heslington. Accessed 29 Oct 2018.
  31. Public Citizen v. Carlin (1997) Opinion and order, 22 October. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (2 F.Supp.2d 1)Google Scholar
  32. Public Citizen v. Carlin (1998) Memorandum opinion and order, 9 April. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (2 F.Supp.2d 18)Google Scholar
  33. Public Citizen v. Carlin (1999) Opinion, 6 August. U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit (184 F.3d 900)Google Scholar
  34. Ravanbakhsh A (2015) Capstone GRS published. NARA records express Blog, 16 September. Accessed 29 May 2018
  35. Rein L (2018) Clinton isn’t first senior government leader to use personal e-mail for official business, The Washington Post, 3 March. Accessed 29 May 2018
  36. Schmidt M (2015) Hillary Clinton used personal email account at State Department, possibly breaking rules. New York Times, ‎New YorkGoogle Scholar
  37. Sinn D, Syn SY, Kim S (2011) Personal records on the web: who’s in charge of archiving, Hotmail or archivists? Libr Inf Sci Res 33:320–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Society of American Archivists (2011) Core values of archivists. Accessed 2 February 2019
  39. Society of American Archivists (2015) Statement on use of non-government email accounts for the conduct of public business. Chicago, Illinois, 23 March. Accessed 30 May 2018
  40. Underwood W et al (2009) Advanced decision support for archival processing of presidential electronic records: final scientific and technical report (September 22, 2006-September 21, 2009). PERPOS TR ITTL/CSITD 09-05, Georgia Tech Research Institute. Accessed 29 May 2018
  41. U.S. Congress (2014) Presidential and federal records act amendments of 2014, 26 November (Public Law 113–187). Accessed 27 Oct.2018
  42. U.S. Department of Defense. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (2002) Design criteria standard for electronic records management software applications, DoD 5015.2-STD, 19 June. Accessed 18 May 2018
  43. U.S. Executive Office of the President. Office of Management and Budget and National Archives and Records Administration (2012) Managing government records directive, 24 August. Accessed 6 April 2019
  44. U.S. Executive Office of the President. Office of the Press Secretary (2011) Presidential memorandum: managing government records, 28 November. Accessed 20 May 2018
  45. U.S. Government Accountability Office (2001) Clinton administration’s management of Executive Office of the President’s e-mail system. Accessed 2 Feb 2019
  46. U.S. Government Publishing Office (various dates) United States government policy and supporting positions (Plum Book). Accessed 21 May 2018
  47. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (1995a) Electronic mail systems: final rule, 28 August (60 Fed. Reg.: 44633-44642)Google Scholar
  48. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (1995b) General records schedule 20: Disposition of electronic records, 28 August (60 Fed. Reg.: 44643-44650)Google Scholar
  49. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (2009) Pre-accessioning permanent electronic records, NARA Bulletin 2009-03, 30 July. Accessed 20 May 2018
  50. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (2013) Guidance on a new approach to managing email records. Bulletin 2013-02, 29 August. Accessed 20 May 2018
  51. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (2014) Markup version of the amendments to the Presidential and Federal records acts of 2014, Public Law 113–187. Accessed 28 May 2018
  52. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (2016) General Records Schedule 6.1: Email managed under a Capstone approach, Transmittal No. 26, September. Accessed 6 April 2019
  53. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Archivist of the United States (1998) Letter from John Carlin to Arthur Money regarding baseline requirements for automated recordkeeping, 18 August. Accessed 18 May 2018
  54. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Office of the Chief Records Officer (2015a) White paper on the Capstone approach and Capstone GRS, April. Accessed 6 April 2019
  55. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Office of the Chief Records Officer (2015b) Records management self-assessment 2014, November 6. Accessed 30 March 2019
  56. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Office of the Chief Records Officer (2017) Federal agency records management: 2016 annual report. Accessed 20 May 2018
  57. U.S. National Security Council (1987) PROFS and A1 memorandum for NSC Staff from Grant S. Green, Jr., 5 March. PROFS/VAX fact sheet attached, undatedGoogle Scholar
  58. U.S. Senate. Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (2014) S. Rept. 113–218. 23 July. Accessed 19 April 2019
  59. U.S. Senate. Select Intelligence Committee (2014) Letter from Diane Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss to Margaret Hawkins, 17 November. Accessed 18 May 2018
  60. Wallace D (2001) Implausible deniability: the politics of documents in the Iran-Contra affair and its investigations. In: Wallace D, Cox R (eds) Archives and the public good: accountability and records in modern society. Quorum Books, Westport, pp 91–114Google Scholar

Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Library of CongressWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.School of InformationUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  3. 3.College of Information StudiesUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA

Personalised recommendations