U.S. Archivist worried about White House Tweets: Recordkeeping in the social media grey zone May 6, 2011

At a recent House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington DC, Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero raised some concerns about the adequacy of the current archives legislation and whether it has kept pace with the way the US Government does business using technology. In particular, Ferriero pointed to the use of cloud based social media applications and personal devices such as iPads by White House staff for generating and keeping content that may relate to official business.

Ferriero told the hearing that official communications sent from a presidential employee’s personal device, using personal accounts, must be preserved under the law, but that it is up to the individual staff member to determine what is official and take steps to capture this content into an official system. Asked whether he was comfortable with a voluntary system, he replied, “Any time there is human intervention, then I’m not comfortable.”

Ferriero’s comments highlight an issue that lots of NSW government organisations are grappling with; the blurring of the personal and the official brought about by the use of social media applications, available from work, home or on the bus, from which we can communicate with the world 24/7 on all manner of subjects, from our footy team to a new initiative at our workplace. Many of us switch quickly and often between our work and personal personas when using these tools, making the already challenging task for records managers of maintaining an adequate trace of official business in these spaces even more difficult. And as Ferriero’s comments indicate, relying on the individual staff member to take steps to save their work related Tweets or Gmail messages in the agency recordkeeping system is an optimistic policy at best.

In NSW, our guidance on managing records of social media communications also relies to a certain extent on the individual officer making the decision to keep a record – but there are tools and techniques that might help to make this an easier process, such as:

  • establishing clear guidelines for staff on the use of ‘official’ and ‘personal’ social media or email accounts (for a good example of this, see the NSW Department of Education and Training’s Social media policy (2011))
  • scheduling regular back ups of official Twitter, Gmail, Facebook or other accounts and keeping these in local recordkeeping systems- there are lots of free tools out there, such as Tweetake or Backupify), and
  • thinking about the need for records to be retained as well as capture – and tailoring the method to suit. For example, for records only required to be kept in the short term, such as two years or less, keeping them in the systems they were generated may be a better option than trying to establish a process of transferring to an EDRMS.


State Records NSW, Records management and web 2.0, 2009. Accessed 06/05/2011: http://www.records.nsw.gov.au/recordkeeping/government-recordkeeping-manual/guidance/guidelines/guideline-24/records-management-and-web-2.0

‘Archivist Troubled by Records Policy’, New York Times, May 3, 2011. Accessed 06/05/2011:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/us/politics/04brfs-ARCHIVISTTRO_BRF.html?_r=2

‘Hearing focuses on flaw in preserving White House records when personal accounts used’, Washington Post, May 4, 2011. Accessed 06/05/2011: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/hearing_focuses_on_flaw_in_preserving_white_house_records_when_personal_accounts_used/2011/05/03/AFLqL9hF_story.html?wprss

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