SPR Bulletin 01-99

TO: Public Records Custodians
SUBJECT: Electronic mail
EXPIRATION DATE: Until superseded
PURPOSE: This bulletin supersedes SPR Bulletin No. 5-92 and provides information and requirements for the management and disposition of electronic mail sent and received by public officials.

Electronic mail (email) is a document created, transmitted and received by a computer system or other electronic form of written communication. Like the telephone, email allows instant communication. Like traditional mail, it creates a durable written record of messages delivered and received. Email use has grown rapidly and it has emerged as a major means for both communication and business activities in all segments of society.

Messages sent by email vary in substance and content. It may contain formal or informal data and text used supporting or executing business activities and policy decisions. The growth of email and the importance of the messages it carries, make it imperative that government offices take steps to effectively manage and control this medium.


1. For the purpose of this bulletin, email is defined as any message created and received on an electronic mail system. An electronic mail system is a service that provides facilities for creating messages, transmitting them through a network and displaying them on a recipient’s computer terminal. The email message may be text or word processing documents, spreadsheets or other data compilations transmitted through such a system.

2. All email created or received by an employee of a government unit is a public record. In Massachusetts, the term "public record" is broadly defined to include all documentary materials or data created or received by any officer or employee of any governmental unit, regardless of physical form or characteristics. G. L. c. 4, § 7(26). Email is, therefore, a public record and it is subject to the requirements of the Public Records Law. G. L. c. 66.

3. All email messages are subject to public access and disclosure through the provisions of the Public Records Law. G. L. c. 66, § 10.

4. All email messages may be sought and obtained through the discovery process in litigation and may be admissible as evidence in a court of law.

5. In most cases, simply deleting a message does not actually ‘delete’ the message. The "delete" key merely removes the electronic pointers to the file. The actual file may remain on the computer system indefinitely unless it is properly expunged from the system. Questions regarding that process should be addressed to your systems administrator. Copies of messages may also be retained independently on system backups. Regardless of the intent to delete the message, as long as it exists, it continues to be subject to discovery.

6. Although email is analogous to paper correspondence, the courts have found that there are indeed, differences between the two records. The contextual data (the "envelope" that contains the mailing address, date/time stamp, routing instructions and transmission and receipt information) that accompanies email messages constitutes an integral part of the record and thus must be retained as a part of any printed or stored version of the record. Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President, 810 F.Supp. 335 (D.D.C. 1993).

7. Email systems are a corporate resource. Email systems in use in government offices are government property installed and maintained for the conduct of government business. The office may and should exercise control over the use of the resource by employees and has the right to monitor and read employee email.


1. Any employee or officer of the Commonwealth who creates or receives an email message must review said message for content. Once a determination has been made regarding the subject matter involved in the communication, the employee or officer must consult the retention schedules for his\her agency or municipality in order to determine the lifecycle of that particular record. Necessary and proper records management procedures must then be implemented to ensure that the record is preserved for the proscribed retention period. G. L. c. 4, § 7(26).

2. Email must be managed as a part of the office’s records holdings. Email messages are subject to the same records management principles as all other records of the office. Records retention schedules issued by the Supervisor of Public Records (for local governments) and by the Records Conservation Board (for state government offices) must be implemented for email as well as for analogous paper records.

3. Email systems are not record-keeping systems. All email users must screen and evaluate email messages according to “CONTENT”.

4. Once the CONTENT or subject matter of the message is determined, the user must consult their agency’s record retention schedule and the Statewide Records Retention Schedule (for State Agencies) or the Records In Common Schedule (for municipalities) to determine how long the record must be preserved.

5. Once the applicable retention period has been determined, the user should file it in accordance with the entity’s filing system procedures.

6. Email messages should be stored depending upon retention period. Please consult your entity’s record liaison officer, computer technical staff or systems engineer for assistance.

7. All government offices must establish written policies regarding their email systems. Said policies must ensure that their system is capable of displaying and preserving the contextual data (metadata) associated with the email message to ensure the capture and preservation of a complete record. Any email message which is printed to preserve content must contain the metadata in its complete form.

8. Government offices must ensure that all personnel who will be handling email are properly trained to ensure compliance with this policy.

Questions regarding access to public records should be directed to:

Supervisor of Records
Public Records Division
1 Ashburton Place, Room 1719
Boston, MA 02108
Phone 617-727-2832
Fax 617-727-5914
Email pre@sec.state.ma.us

Questions regarding records retention should be directed to:

Records Management Unit
Massachusetts State Archives at Columbia Point
220 Morrissey Blvd.
Boston, MA 02125
Phone 617-727-2816
Fax 617-288-8429
Email recman@sec.state.ma.us