ASIS&T 2006 START Conference Manager    

Personal Email Management on the University Digital Desktop: User Behaviors vs. Archival Best Practices

Megan Winget, Kimberly Chang, Helen Tibbo

ASIS&T Annual Meeting - 2006 (ASIS&T 2006)
Austin, Texas, November 3-9, 2006


This paper will review findings from an extensive user study which seeks to understand the ways in which individuals currently manage, interact with, and think about electronic files, particularly email. Funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), we web-surveyed nearly 3000 faculty, staff, and administrators; and conducted personal follow-up interviews with 100 people across two universities. Our findings indicate that while many employees think that they are handling their email appropriately because they personally do not have difficulties finding a particular document when they need it, they often are not managing their email in a manner which supports archival or records management needs. Due to the increasing improvement of desktop retrieval and search programs and the refinement of personal filing schemas, users are generally not concerned with the ability to find files on their personal hard-drives. Their concerns revolve around the volume of files with which they are forced to contend, leading to wasted time, improperly deleted files, confusion, and general dissatisfaction with the networked environment.

The information technology community, including archivists, is concerned with the preservation of digital materials, and therefore has a different set of concerns. We found that predictable filing schemas, which make possible the necessary comprehension of context and provenance for the purpose of reliable and authentic preservation, are often lost in users’ daily practice. While the IT community has made efforts to educate users in the basics of how to use their software, few people have been taught how to evaluate and manage their emails and files. The archival and records management communities often claim that users need to become more educated about how to properly manage and organize their information. However, our research suggests that it will be difficult to raise the level of information management literacy and convince users to change their behavior if their level of tolerance for mismanagement fails to reach a certain threshold. While email users tend to be frustrated with the amount of emails received, the lack of time to properly manage those emails and the shortcomings of their email software, few of those that we interviewed reported having difficulty finding files or emails when they needed them. In general, people have little motivation to change their behaviors, although those behaviors may be detrimental to archival goals.

Within this context, the project team set out to develop a framework within which all interested parties, both general users and digital archivists, can work to effect change. Specifically, we will provide guidance on appraisal issues; helping users determine which documents they should keep and which they should delete, thus cutting down on volume. We want to make them aware of the pertinent state and federal records law; letting them know which documents they are expected and required to keep, and what they ought to delete, again cutting down on volume. And finally, we want to educate them of options regarding organization, storage, and the authentic, reliable preservation of their digital documents, which will help alleviate users’ confusion and discontent. As evidenced from our data, the most pressing need is not the implementation or development of an electronic records management system, but rather the development of a tool that can provide context when the users can’t or won’t make the effort to provide it themselves.

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