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Email is Where Knowledge Goes to Die–Or is it?

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Like a comedian from yesteryear, email gets no respect.  What it does get is plenty of ire.  I’m always hearing about how email is “out of control” and that we waste too much time dealing with it.  Or that we don’t have enough time to deal with it.

RIP Sideways Smiley, by heatherhosely, on Flickr
RIP Sideways Smiley, by heatherhosely, on Flickr

One writer proclaims 10 Reasons I Don’t Answer Your Email. A popular tech commentator pleads that We Have to Fix Email. Another writer gets right to the point with I Hate Email–in two parts, no less.

There is even an idea offered that Email is Where Knowledge Goes to Die. Specifically: “Everyone agrees – email is a knowledge cul-de-sac – a dead end for valuable ideas – a graveyard of potential. Email is where corporate IQ kicks back and has a brewski. Email also contributes to corporate amnesia; forgetfulness that costs businesses millions – perhaps billions in repeated mistakes every year.”

I have plenty of sympathy for all these sentiments.  I know the nagging guilt of hundreds of unread messages, often backed up over the course of weeks.  My head spins knowing that, between work and private accounts, I have a collection of close to 100,000 messages stretching back into the previous century.  Every day I devote more time than I like dealing with a torrential flow into my inbox, and am guilty of increasing the torrent for others.

And yet.  Email is a fantastic resource for documenting and remembering.  I regularly depend on my own email collection to retrieve details that otherwise never would have been captured.  All that volume provides rich information for answering questions about the past—assuming, of course, that a halfway decent search functionality is available.   And assuming that some glitch doesn’t wipe out the entire corpus.  Journalist James Fallows tells a marvelous story about the impact of losing a big personal collection of email due to a  malfunction and makes clear just how meaningful all those messages are in their entirety.

Collecting institutions are also coming to the conclusion that email has important documentary value.  The Personal Archives Accessible in Digital Media project of the Universities of Oxford and Manchester identified email “as one of the most interesting types of historical record being created in our times,” as “It contains records of business transactions (that might have been undertaken via an exchange of correspondence on headed notepaper previously) as well as informal exchanges (previously the stuff of telephone conversations).”

Email collections from famous people are arriving in libraries and archives.  The Salman Rushdie “papers” at Emory University include the author’s email, and the British Library acquired Wendy Cope’s email as part of the poet’s archive.

I think all the griping we do about email leads us to discount its value.  It lacks the order and formality of hard copy correspondence, and is typically regarded as less official, less “real.”  In days gone by, offices–and individuals–diligently kept copies of letters in well-managed files.  This practice is now much less common with email, which has, of course, supplanted hard copy.

We can chose for our email to live on rather than die through neglect, error or mindless deletion.  Given all the time and effort we put into our messaging, and the wealth of information it contains, it makes sense to think about what should be saved.  Sadly, it’s true that the technology for saving messages can be cumbersome and imperfect, and that  is yet another reason to bad-mouth email.

In the spirit of offering help to individuals and families for keeping their digital memories, we offer some simple steps for keeping their personal messages.  Check them out before your email–and the important information in it–departs this life.

Comments (7)

  1. Hi Bill,
    Couldn’t agree more about the value of information embedded in email. We’ve been working on new applications for this information, e.g. by highlighting known terms in the browser. You might be interested in this paper:
    Effective Browsing and Serendipitous Discovery with an Experience-Infused Browser

    (where experience is approximated by the contents of your personal digital archive, of which the most important part is email).

  2. Email is where knowledge often resides, some of which manifests itself in other published forms. It is like the letters of yesteryears a tremendous source for future historians.

    The email technology has changed very little since its beginning. Perhaps a Library of Congress initiative which brings together people concerned with mining this huge reservoir of human knowledge and from the perspective of personal digital collection from all over the world into a cooperative effort to create methodology and open source software that can be available to all to create a curated personal archive. The current email client software are totally unsuited for this purpose and commercial software is aimed at the large corporation market which needs lot of money and lot of people to support. Even then it is inadequate for the purpose.

    In creating an access to the knowledge contained in emails we have to find ways and means (and tools) to resurrect knowledge with the same respect that we give to collection of correspondence in terms of privacy and propriety.

    Toue la m´moire du monde (1956) was the title of the short film by Alain Resnais that is relevant “…essay on the potential and the limits of dutifully archived human knowledge, masquerading as a documentary on the organisation of the Bibliothèque nationale de France”.

    Bill LeFurgy’s proposal is about ‘dutifully archived human knowledge’ residing in emails. The Library is an unique position to lead a global quest to capture and mine this wealth of material.

  3. We must not forget, Texts, Blogs, notes, CDs, tapes, cassettes, DVDs and that lists goes on…

  4. “Email is where knowledge often resides…”

    Indeed, but only if it can be discovered at the instant when it is most valuable.

    Discovery of knowledge nuggets in email systems is almost non-existent in all businesses. Despite the belief and grand statements that archives provide answers, few are ever retrieved.

    A second, more difficult aspect of knowledge artifacts buried in email, is timing. If you’re about to launch a marketing initiative that was previously attempted by your predecessor, which also failed miserably, is it likely email archives – which clearly show your new campaign is a bad idea – will be discovered in time to avert a second disaster?

    I’m certain we can learn from historical messages, but this isn’t typically knowledge we can leverage for operational advantage. Ergo… email is [presently] where most knowledge goes to die.

  5. Email is still a very powerful tool that combines all the strength of twitter, blogging, facebook and other scattered communication tools.

    And if we worry about knowledge that is going to die; that’s the same with knowledge stored in the brains of all employees, yet we haven’t decided to remove those brains.

    Instead, combined with a powerful search engine email gives the owner a great knowledge base to filter out relevant information for others. Yes, some information is outdated and should die in your mail database, other information can be retrieved quickly and shared at the right moment to benefit the greater good.

  6. Hans,

    “… combined with a powerful search engine email gives the owner a great knowledge base to filter out relevant information for others.”

    You’re dreaming.

    Enterprises (and many smaller business) are unable to drop search engines on top of email archives for many reasons; security context being the biggest issue. Just knowing that an email conversation exists about employee layoffs is a security breach. Imagine the complexities of maintaining security contexts across a topology rife with CC’s and other shared resources.

    “… that’s the same with knowledge stored in the brains of all employees, yet we haven’t decided to remove those brains.”

    Ideally, every employee stays with your firm until they retire. This is not the case, so the brains of employees do not represent a sustainable knowledge framework.

    Corporate amnesia, arguably one of the greatest costs to an enterprise, is directly related to the degree with which we rely on human memory.

  7. Knowledge is best thought of as the capacity to act.

    If it is buried away in an email archive or the tomb that is some academic books, it really is nothing more than data/information begging to be mined/found/read so that it can be transformed into knowledge – a living thriving driver of action.

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