Email Preservation Project

On June 7, 2011, in Research, by Chris Prom

I am getting ready to move into a more active posting phase, as I am working on a research project over the summer: writing a Guide to Email Preservation for the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Technology Watch Series.  It is one of several reports that have been commissioned by the Digital Preservation Coalition and Charles Beagrie, Ltd.  I’ll be posting drafts and working notes as I move along.  Later today, I hope to post an initial bibliography.

The project doesn’t aim to create any new software, but to survey current practices, tools, and policies.  It will make technology and (to a lesser extent, policy) recommendations for institutions both large and small, that have a need or desire to preserve email over the long term.

My initial impression: there really has not been as much published as one would hope, particularly in  peer reviewed journals, concerning this topic.  Archivists and a few other seems to be operating under the assumption that email has archival value, but no one systematically makes the case as to why it might include records worthy of preservation for historical reasons.  Coupled with this, there have been relatively few projects to develop a policy framework and technology infrastructure to capture and preserve it, outside of a few government archives.  While much good work is going on and quite a few effective tools exist, much of the work is taking place without much impact beyond the local level, or in a way that can be easily generalized across different repositories or sectors (e.g. corporate, academic, personal.)

As a result, it seems to me that we (as a profession) can and must do much more to make a case that would convince people a) that certain types of email should be preserved for historical purposes and b) archives and libraries have both a policy framework and tech infrastructure that will ensure that it is preserved in accordance with sound professional practice, including appropriate protection of IP/copyright and, potentially, the privacy rights of donors or third parties.

We’ll see how much I modify this off the cuff, probably unwarranted, generalization, as I dig into the topic in more detail.

Administrative Note:  I added Disqus as a commenting system, which should make it easier to comment on postings, and I have also added Google Analytics to the site, to track aggregated usage stats.  If you don’t like Google Analytics, you can opt out by following these instructions.  I may also update the theme, if it does not cause me too much hassle, since the site has looked a bit stale for a while now.

Tagged with:  
  • Guest

    Looking forward to this report.  Your post reminded me that I’m having trouble finding published information revealing how email can/should be/is being used, which would help give us some direction on what we need to make sure we capture.  I had an interesting conversation with someone who works for a company that does e-discovery for attorneys.  I was surprised to learn that the lawyers he works with are not interested in a lot of the technical metadata we as archivists think we should be capturing in order to maintain the evidentiary value of the email exchange.  Essentially, this person’s company was turning emails into TIFFs (“They want TIFFs,” he said and shrugged) and delivering them that way.  He then said they were just analyzing the content of the email and not looking at some of the structural and technical metadata to ensure that the email had not been tampered with.  I don’t want to generalize this conversation based on the practices of a few (lazy?) lawyers, but this account is better than nothing.

    Anyway, it got me thinking that I’m at a loss in finding any case studies that survey how our constituents–lawyers, departments, scholars–use or are going to use born-digital content. This kind of information could assist us in appraisal and in determining how much and what kind of metadata we want to capture.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I have overlooked something, so if you know of any such surveys, I’d be glad to hear about them.

  • Same guest

    By using I mean researching emails in an archival/historical context, not in their day-to-day.