When was the last time you wrote a letter, on paper? Other than my note-to-self stickies (my desk usually has a bunch), or greeting cards, I personally have not written much of substance, just on paper, in a long time.
These days, of course, we are engulfed in the digital versions of note writing – with many different options available. And over the past generation or so, much of our individual correspondence has taken place via e-mail. It’s now ubiquitous and so easy to do it makes you wonder how we ever functioned without it. We write it, maybe file it in a folder in our email program of choice, and then we forget it. It’ll be there when we need it again, right?
The thing is, in the future it may not be there unless you take steps to preserve it. Email is a type of “born digital” material – that is, something that was originally created in digital form. And more and more of what we produce – both at work and our personal lives – is now born digital. And the digital is fragile. So we should save email for the same reasons we save any important record – to have access to it in the future.
Email could get lost for a number of reasons – due to the archival limitations of an email program, file corruption, or when a current email program is replaced with another program altogether.
Using an example from my own experience at work, we are now on our third email program since I started here at the Library. Unfortunately, it can be difficult if not impossible to retrieve email from an older program, once the switch to the newer one is made. What if you wanted to see an email discussion of a project from 5 or 10 years ago? (Yes, I’ve been here awhile!) Those older emails may contain useful information relevant to a current project. Those emails may also be gone, having disappeared into the digital ether.
And of course, you might want to preserve much of your personal email, either for sentimental reasons or to preserve valuable family or legal correspondence. Some of these emails are important and well worth saving. In addition to your own use, you may also want to save emails for future generations.
Those of us working in digital preservation recommend active “management” of email, especially that which has long term value. This blog posting is focused on the “why” but we do have information available to help with the “how”. On our Personal Digital Archiving pages we offer some general guidelines for saving your personal materials.
For all digital formats we recommend similar steps to preserve the digital files – for email, the specific recommendations are listed here, but in a nutshell:
1. Identify – your email source
2. Select/decide – items with long term value
3. Export – either individual emails, or as a group
4. Organize – name your files
5. Copy/manage – make duplicates, and store in at least two separate locations
And what about my emails from that old long-ago program? Since I wanted to hang onto some of them after the transition, I made copies – that is, I saved them as text files and also printed them out. And it’s good to know they are still there.