To delete or archive - that is the question

August 7, 2013 

One of the most important business tools is email. It allows us to stay in touch with the office and each other regardless of our location. While email is useful, it's not perfect.

One issue is that we receive so many emails, with as many as 100 a day or more. This has led to many an overload and meltdown; there are just simply too many emails to get through. So, what do most people do? Delete them. However, that could lead to problems.

When it comes down to it there are usually two options for users to keep their inbox from overflowing. They can either archive or delete emails.

Archiving or deleting emails

Archiving and deleting are features that are available to most email clients. By archiving email, you essentially remove them from your inbox, usually into another folder. When you archive emails, they are still retrievable, and you are still able to search for them and access the information within them. Deleting emails, on the other hand, is different. Yes, your emails are removed, but they will usually not disappear instantly. Most email programs move deleted emails into a trash folder. Some clients are set up to empty the folder on a daily basis, while others delete instantly or when they've set the program to. However, once you empty the trash, it's very hard to get these deleted emails back.

The issue of whether to delete or archive emails is a bit cloudy. For personal accounts it's a little easier: If the email is junk, spam, or contains useless information, it's safe to delete it. For businesses, you can go ahead and delete junk emails, but for many other emails it may be a better idea to archive emails.

Here are a number of reasons:

1. It's the law

Depending which country and industry your company operates in, there may be rules and regulations that state how long you should keep emails. For example: The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FCRP) in the U.S. states that if a company can anticipate legal action from information contained within a message, or series of messages, it must archive them. The EU has similar, yet slightly more complicated rules. The Data Protection Directive (DPA) of the EU states that, "Personal data must be stored, but no longer than necessary… The subjects of emails, the "Data Subjects," have the right to access information about the storage and access to their personal data and to request accurate copies. If you operate in the EU, you must furnish personal information stored in email or otherwise, if asked for it. The kicker is: If you've deleted emails with such information, you are obligated to provide these as well. Most other countries have laws similar to these, so it's better to err on the side of caution and check with a lawyer to ensure you know exactly what the rules are.

2. Storage isn't an issue

In the past, emails took up precious storage, so you really had no other choice but to delete messages. Nowadays, that's not as big of an issue, especially for users of services like Gmail who get upwards of 10GB (more than enough to store all of your emails). This allows you to archive emails while keeping your inbox clean, and not having to worry about the law.

3. Email is a form of data

Data is becoming big business. While it's highly likely that many small to medium businesses won't be implementing Big Data practices in the near future, data in emails is still important. Let's say for instance that you get an order for X amount of Y last year, and you were so busy you just filled the order but didn't fill in the proper records. When that client emails again, the only other information you have is from previous emails. If you delete it, that information is gone. Beyond that, many decisions are made through and recorded in email. Delete that important email stating next year's budget decision, and you could be in trouble.

4. Archive or delete?

We're not suggesting you should keep all of your emails. In fact, the above reasons for archiving all have one thing in common: Useful information. The key is if information in an email isn't useful to you, your company or colleagues, or if you have it stored in another location, you can probably delete messages.

David Spire, president and CEO of United Systems, holds multiple professional certifications, including Microsoft's Small Business Specialist. He can be reached at 941.721.6423 or by e-mail at

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