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.
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.