Digital Collections

E-Mail Gets Archivist Attention

According to a museum with her name on it, about a thousand of Emily Dickinson's letters written to friends and family members have survived, about a tenth of the total she is estimated to have composed. You can buy a single volume with the compilation. Vincent Van Gogh wrote 819 letters, most to his brother Theo, and received 83; and all are shared on a website and in book form. Both individuals have been better understood through their correspondence. But what about the emails or texts sent and received by Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey or Kim Kardashian? How will those be preserved for historians of this or another century?

The preservation of digital messages is the challenge being taken up by a new consortium of universities, companies and other organizations. The "Task Force on Technical Approaches for Email Archives" will be developing frameworks, tools and approaches for preserving personal correspondence sent and received in digital form. The executive committee will be co-chaired by Christopher Prom, the assistant university archivist and associate professor of library administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Kate Murray, IT specialist in audio-visual at the Library of Congress.

While the capture, preservation and access to other forms of digital expression have been figured out to some degree, e-mail is a different animal — resistant to efforts at preservation. Among the obstacles: the many processes required to acquire and appraise collections, sort out the individual records, address privacy and legal considerations, preserve messages and attachments and provide access to researchers. Therefore, most archives and libraries lack a methodical approach for adding or maintaining e-mail in their collections.

"As archives include more born-digital collections, the complex technical issues around preserving e-mail are more prevalent and increasingly important," said Murray in a statement. "The technical issues around e-mail preservation are compounded by the sheer scale of the collections. Many of us have thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of e-mail messages in our mailboxes. Solutions need to move beyond the boutique and one-off to community supported, large-scale and customizable options."

That's where the task force comes in. Over the next year the group will focus on three major areas:

  • Articulating a technical framework;
  • Figuring out how existing tools fit within the framework; and
  • Beginning to identify missing elements.

Then it will write a report that includes recommendations for specific activities archives could undertake to create, preserve and provide access to records of electronic correspondence.

Participants are coming from Google and Microsoft; numerous universities, including Harvard, Stanford and Yale; the National Archives and Records Administration, Rockefeller Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Digital Preservation Coalition.

The work is being funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Digital Preservation Coalition.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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