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Why Should We Save Our Email?

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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?

Internet Email, by mattwi1s0n, on flickr

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.


Comments (5)

  1. That’s a great post on a very important topic. I couldn’t agree more — there’s incredible amounts of personal history being captured in these archives. At Stanford University, we are developing tools to let people visualize and easily browse such long-term email archives. We’ve released a program called Muse (for Memories Using Email) that can be obtained from here:

    We are looking for users who have at least 10 years of their email archives in order to get their input and help us test out Muse. Anyone who is interested, please contact hangal AT Thanks!.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, and for the information about your interesting project! We always like to hear about what others are doing to capture digital information, and hope to hear more about this in the future.

  3. This is an important post, on an important topic. However, I disagree with recommendations 2, 3 and 4 and in fact believe that they are counterproductive

    First, what need is there to decide which particular have long term value? I have over 15 years of my sent email archives, and much of the received email, and the total volume is under 15 GB. I am very heavy email user. And is it really practical to select messages? Who has the time or inclination to do anything other than delete messages of no value at the time you first see them?

    Second, exporting messages carries many risks, unless you really understand how email systems work (and few people do). For example, many systems will export messages in a way that destroys critical information from the email header; other programs will leave them in a format that is very difficult to migrate or view.

    It would be much better to use a program like the free Mailstore Home application, which you can connect to your email account in a few minutes. Once connected, you can archive a copy of all your email to a local drive or any location of your choice, in a way that allows you to search it, export it to an open ‘preservation ready’ format, or load it back into an email system of your choice.

    Finally, I think it is unrealistic to expect people to organize files; who has time? Tools such as the Muse project software that Sudheendra mentioned, which I have tested and would recommend, offer a much better way to make email accessible and make it usable.

    I don’t mean to be critical of the Library’s advice, since it is well intentioned and raises attention to a critically important topic. I just thought people would appreciate an alternate take, since have researched this issue extensively and have a forthcoming report on the topic of email preservation.

    People who are interested in learning more about my work can do so here:

    Although much of this work is targeted at the professional community, there is also much of interest to anyone who want to preserve their own email.

    Chris Prom
    Assistant University Archivist
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    • Chris: Thanks for your insightful and well-reasoned comments. They illustrate a point of view toward email archiving that is eminently reasonable–under certain assumptions. Our basic advice for personal archiving ( is that users need a flexible framework that they can adapt to individual circumstances. Selection, we believe, is up to individual users; some may want to simplify the process and, as you suggest, opt to keep–select–everything. Others may only see value in keeping a handful of important messages, and still others may want to cull large categories of content from their collection (spam, listserv traffic, “the latest from” messages and so forth). Exporting messages in bulk can be process fraught with risk, as you suggest, but if someone is keeping a limited number it is not especially complicated to save them as text files with headers intact. And organizing files is also, we feel, also best left to individual users to decide. Some of us swear by the “big bucket” approach, while others find categorization useful. (Assuming the categories are meaningful and consistent, there is a good argument to be made that they are helpful for secondary use over time.)

  4. Bill–thanks for the reply. I agree with you that whatever approach is taken, it must be based on the individual’s own preferences and square well with their own personal information management practices. I think that the flexibility of the LOC’s approach shows that it is basically sound, and I know we all appreciate the work you are doing.

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