“Documentary materials” includes correspondence created or received by the President and members of the Executive Office of the President. The PRA does not distinguish between electronic correspondence and paper correspondence; as long as the document reflects the policies and deliberations of the Executive Office of the President, the material is subject to the PRA. Therefore, the White House is required to archive materials such as e-mails, and even its web pages. The Obama administration, which utilizes many of recent innovations like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook has moved the Presidential Records Act into a new era of communication. The Obama administration pursuant to the PRA, archives its online postings on these social media sites. It also treats the public’s comments and messages on these sites as presidential records as they constitute a form of correspondence between the White House and the public. The administration on a White House Blog post explained that “instead of sending an e-mail, people often now post on someone’s profile or comment on a video that’s been uploaded. When people want to tell the White House what they think, they’ll often do the same thing on our social media pages” and “these new types of communication from individuals to the White House, even though they take a different form, are governed by the PRA.” The White House manages these records through an automated archiving process.
As we saw during the Bush administration, keeping electronic records in paper format is not completely adequate as important information can be lost:
The adequacy of White House records management system has been challenged several times over the years. These challenges, in the form of law suits, to federal government record keeping have largely been in respect to the preservation of electronic records. The guidelines by which electronic records are archived by the federal government have evolved in great part in response to judicial decisions emanating from these suits. For example, prior to the 1993 D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Armstrong v. EOP, the federal government did not archive emails in their electronic forms; rather, emails were printed and filed. The electronic versions of the emails were then scheduled for deletion from the live system at the White House. The federal government followed this policy in the belief that “…the printed copy is identical to what is on the computer screen.” Therefore, “printing the actual message text on the computer screen normally is sufficient for adequate documentation of the agency’s business.” The court however agreed with Armstrong et al., that print-outs of emails are not full reproductions of the emails in their original electronic form. A paper copy might omit pertinent information contained in the electronic record which does not appear in the onscreen message. These include the identity of the sender(s) and the recipient(s). For example, an email could be sent out to a number of people on a distribution list titled List A and the paper record will only note that the email was sent out to this list without capturing the actual names of the recipients. As such, the court determined that electronic records of emails are not extra copies of hard-copy emails, but are distinct federal records themselves, and pursuant to the Federal and Presidential Records Act, must be preserved. The court also affirmed that federal agencies and the Executive Office of the President are obligated to periodically review the record keeping practices of their staff to ensure that they are following established standards and procedures.
As any museum or library director can tell you, electronic record administration will continue to test our systems in the future, but it is something we need to continue to work on.