Together We Can Meet The Email Preservation and Access Challenge

To keep or not to keep? And how to keep it?

I remember being skeptical when Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, announced his vision of “a computer on every desk and in every home” in 1980. I thought it more indicative of a grandiose ambition than where society was headed. Today, I have four computers in my house, not counting the cell phones every member of my family carries with them 24 hours a day.

In a similar way, the email we used to think of as akin to a phone call has become ubiquitous correspondence today. The ease with which we can send email has created a rich deluge with which archivists, records managers, curators and historians must grapple — and it shows no signs of subsiding.

“Email is one of the richest, one of the most revealing, if not the most revealing, of sources currently being generated.”
Christopher Prom, Assistant University Archivist and Associate Professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The professional consensus for many years now is yes, we should keep it. Not indiscriminately, but yes, keep it as long as it is officially or historically valuable. The question of how — well, well, there’s a variety of approaches. And equally important is how we will provide meaningful access to these archival collections of email.

Wading into the fray

Is email stable enough to be documentary evidence? Is there a practicable method of categorizing email messages that are important to preserve in digital form as a special collection or archival accession? What kind of system can ensure that historically valuable email remains intact and authentic? These are some of the questions that plagued the archives and records management communities for nearly three decades. Many of the answers may seem patently obvious today, however behind that is an evolution in our understanding of the place this technology has in our society.

With the ‘should we keep it?’ question resolved, two primary questions still remain. First, how do we effectively go about preserving this and managing what we have preserved? Second, how do we provide meaningful access to the bodies of historic email in our special collections? Not ones to back away from a challenge, a surprising number of institutions have devoted resources to this issue and continue to do so.

Email Archiving Stewardship Tools Workshop.

Taking stock and looking forward

This past March, representatives from several groups gathered in Boston to share their progress, the tools they had developed, and where they saw gaps between the current tools and methodology and a fully supported lifecycle stewardship of historic email. The Email Archiving Stewardship Tools (EAST) Workshop included host Harvard University Library, and attendees Stanford University Library, MIT Archives and Special Collections, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Library of Congress, the BitCurator Consortium, Artefactual Systems, and the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Signal, a blog devoted to digital preservation and hosted by the Library of Congress, does an excellent job of touching on the main points of the Workshop. I strongly encourage my fellow archivists, curators and conservators to check it out. Rather than summarize what has already been done so well by my fellow workshop participant Kate Murray, I prefer to focus on the significance of the gathering as it appears to me.

Archiving Email SymposiumSo, why am I so encouraged by the Harvard-hosted EAST workshop and the Archiving Email Symposium hosted by Library of Congress earlier in 2015? Two things.

First, the openness of the participants in discussing both the limitations and strengths of our tools and systems (such as Stanford University Library’s ePADD, BitCurator, Archivematica, Harvard’s Electronic Archiving System, and the Archives' CERP Email Preservation Parser, soon to be replaced by its DArcMail preservation software). This allowed us to explore and define the gap between the capabilities and functions we’ve built, and what remains to be built in order to carry out a solid, robust archival stewardship of historic email. Diversity is our friend, not our enemy. The one who builds alone is destined to fall further and further behind.

Second, the passion to pursue this in a frank and candid way demonstrates an unequivocal ambition to leverage what has been accomplished so far. As a result, we are able to build the bridges that will allow us to thoughtfully and methodically assemble,  workflows and mechanisms to carry our email collections safely from acquisition to access.

Evidence supporting this is there for the examination. I am confident that all of the EAST workshop participants welcome it. Tools our organizations developed have been released as open source or are in the process of being so released. Some of the tools stand alone, accomplishing a specific function, while others are designed to suit a particular context. Still others are designed to support microservices, thereby potentially yielding great flexibility to better adapt the differences of our organizations.

But first things first, success and progress is only possible if we work together, refuse to sacrifice our standards, and remain steadfast in our conviction that we are up to the challenge. It looks like we are well on our way.

Related Resources

O Email! My Email! Our Fearful Trip is Just Beginning: Further Collaborations with Archiving Email, The Signal, Library of Congress 

The Email Archiving Stewardship Workshop, Harvard University Library

We Welcome Our Email Overlords: Highlights from the Archiving Email SymposiumThe Signal, Library of Congress 

Preserving Email, Digital Preservation Coalition Technology Watch Report

Curating E-Mails: A Life-cycle Approach to the Management and Preservation of E-mail MessagesThe Digital Curation Centre

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