Finding a path through the email forest

Female figure in forest. Artist F P Hoffer (catalogue reference: INF 3/1024)

Female figure in forest. Artist F P Hoffer (catalogue reference: INF 3/1024)

I was catching up with the latest instalment of The Hobbit film series, The Desolation of Smaug, last week. The scene where they enter Mirkwood and walk round in circles aimlessly (we’ll leave out the bit where the spiders attack –  yuck!) reminded me a bit of how I feel about email.

Personally, I have always tried to delete or save my emails into our corporate systems as soon as I can (as an Information Manager I feel I have to set an example) but even I am starting lose my way in the ever increasing tangle of emails in my inbox.

During the Mirkwood scene Bilbo climbs a tree until finally he bursts out of the top of the forest and drinks in the fresh air as butterflies rise up around him. What can we do as Information Managers to help our colleagues find path through the forest? Can we help them get a breath of fresh air?

There is no easy answer to the problem of email but here are four ways that you can make a difference:

1. Clarify the value of email

It is often difficult for users to decide what emails are of value and sometimes they don’t even understand that it is a crucial business record. We need to make it clear that emails are an important record, and should define clearly those that should be kept for business, legal and historical purposes. Staff should receive training on this at induction and it should be communicated regularly thereafter. You should also ensure that staff know where these important emails should be saved.

Beware of allowing emails to pile up in an email archive. This will just delay the problem. You will still at some point have to decide which are of ongoing value and which can be destroyed. It is easier to do this when there are fewer emails to wade through.

2. Make it easier for users to save important emails

Getting users to choose which emails are of importance and then move them out of their email system to a corporate information management system is difficult. The ideal is for emails to be filed at the time they are received or sent but users often delay doing this, particularly if the process of moving emails into the corporate system is a laborious one. Also, how many of us mark out time in our calendars for email filing and then get dragged into a meeting or onto another more pressing piece of work?

Some systems designed to manage information will connect to your email system and enable users to drag and drop their emails into the corporate information management system without leaving the confines of their inbox.

It is also possible to make it easier for users to classify or categorise their emails as soon as they are received or sent. In my last blog I referenced the work of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (originally highlighted by James Lappin in his Thinking Records blog). Users categorise their emails as either ‘Personal/trivial’, ‘Draft/transitory’ or ‘FAO record.’ If a user selects the final two categories then they are asked to add an appropriate ‘team tag’ and a copy is then placed in the records repository.

3. Take the onus off of the end user

You could also consider an approach that does not require end users to make decisions about each individual email, by capturing certain types of email automatically. I have also previously mentioned the Capstone approach used by The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), where the email accounts of senior staff are kept in totality. This approach is not without its issues, in particular that lots of sensitive or trivial information will be captured too and that other important emails might be missed, but it may help to ensure that important emails are captured.

4. Encourage people to use email less

Email is still our main tool of communication but it doesn’t have to be. There are ways that we can reduce the amount of emails we send by using other forms of communication. Something everyone can do is consider whether it is more appropriate to go and speak to a colleague rather than sending them an email.

You could also explore the use of collaboration, case management or other similar systems to work with colleagues. Records could then be captured and managed directly through these systems rather than sending separate emails. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation produce a digest of emails sent or received each day which has reduced the necessity to copy colleagues into emails.

To find out more see our key principles on managing email. Also, if you know of any other innovative approaches to managing email let us know about them in the comments below.


  1. […] Interesting blog on the National Archives site. I suspect that most people in schools are far too busy think about the archiving process in this way, but it's food for thought. Finding a path through the email forest | The National Archives blog […]

  2. David Matthew says:

    The recording of important or difficult decisions should always, of course, be recorded, rather than about sending e-mails over how many cups of tea are required for a meeting.

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