Email Management and Preservation Guidelines

This page is based partially on the UK National Archives “Guidelines on developing a policy for managing email.”   The information presented below is intended to be used as a template for an “Email Management and Preservation Guidelines” document, which might be distributed to records creators,  i.e. potential donors.

Disclaimer: The guidelines are not intended to be used as a prescriptive policy, but to provide relatively easy-to-follow advice, so that email is managed in a way that will facilitate its  long-term preservation and/or eventual transfer to an archival repository.  An advice document that you craft for local use should take account of appropriate legal and business requirements as well as individual rights, while still facilitating effective communication and work.  It is strongly advised that organizations do not use this text without first considering the impact  of the guidelines or consulting with members of staff throughout the organization.  If desirable given the local context, it may be possible to craft these guidelines into a formal policy including requirements and sanctions for non compliance, but in such cases the policy should be developed with appropriate consultation, including consultation with legal counsel and information officers.

Email Management and Preservation Guidelines

Email programs are one common technology that people use to communicate with others, to share information, and to record decisions.  The semi-formal nature of an email message means that it provides greater reliability as evidence than, say, a text message or a conversation.  For historical research, email may have great importance not only to the person who created and sent the message, but also to future students and scholars.  (If you wish to donate your email to an archival repository, please contact us for additional advice and assistance.)

The email messages that you write today may someday be as valuable as the letters written by your ancestors.  For this reason, email messages must be managed appropriately after they have been sent or received.  Each email program stores messages in a different way, and each person uses email differently, but the general principles by which email works are simple and easy to understand.[1] By applying the four general principles listed below, you can manage your email for effective long-term preservation.

  • Use email “archive” functions cautiously:  Be very careful when using an email program’s “archive” or “auto-archive” function.[2] Ten minutes spent understanding and configuring this feature new may save you untold hours (and a large headache) later.
  • Know where your email are stored: Email programs and servers may write files to many hard disk locations.
    • If you use only a web browser to access you email, it will be stored on the server managed by the email provider (for example, Google for Gmail, or Microsoft for Hotmail).
    • If you use a desktop program (such as Outlook 2007 or Thunderbird) to access your email, the files may be stored on a server managed by the email provider, on a shared networked drive, or on your local hard drive.
      • POP Servers: If you connect to a POP server, it is almost certain that the client will download the messages to your local computer and delete them from the server.
      • IMAP Servers: If you connect to an IMAP server, it is likely that your local computer is storing messages on the central email server and also keeping a local copy.  By examining settings in your software, you can identify how and where messages are being stored, then take appropriate safeguards to ensure that they are not corrupted, accidentally deleted, or lost through hardware failure.
      • If you use multiple methods to access email, or have more than one email accounts, please bear in mind the information below.[3]
  • Organize your messages for preservation: There are many ways that you can organize non-current email so that it is optimally accessible now and in the future.  Regardless of which method you choose, the system must be easy for you to use and must preserve messages that you believe have long-term value.  Two sample methods are suggested for your consideration:
    • Sent Mail and Inbox Method:
      • This option requires less configuration and active management, but may decrease future accessibility.
      • When responding, quote the original message.
      • Configured all email software that you use to save the sent messages to the same folder/storage location, preferably on the server that sent the messages.   For help, see your software’s help file or this document’s Appendix.[4]
      • Ensure that important messages to which you did not respond and all received messages with attachments of permanent value are retained in your inbox.
      • As needed, purge your server-based “Sent Items” and  old “Inbox” items to local folders of whatever name you choose (e.g. a networked server or local hard drive).  Consider defining a rule to automatically move your Sent-mail and Inbox message , if you are comfortable configuring the “Archive” function (see above).
      • Ensure that the local “Sent Item” and  old “Inbox” folders are being regularly duplicated to another storage device, e.g. hard drive (see below).
    • Subject Folders Method:
      • This method requires more configuration and active management, but may increase future accessibility.
      • Create subject-based folders that reflect the nature of the work you do.  Store them either on the server or your local computer.
      • Configure your software so that copies of sent messages are placed into same folder as the message to which they respond.
      • As messages of long term value are received, sort them into the subject based folder system.
      • Manually place any sent messages that do not automatically copy to the subject based folder system into the appropriate folder.
      • Ensure that the subject based folders are being regularly duplicated to another storage device, e.g. hard drive (see below).
  • Use local folders wisely: Sometimes it is necessary to store messages on a local computer, instead of a central server, due to quotas or other constraints.  If you need to do this, ensure that you:
    • Backup local folders: Ensure that any email stored on your local hard drive is either a) stored on a networked drive that is backed up by a third party or b) included in your personal backup routine.  Files that are not stored on an IMAP or networked server must be backed up regularly to an external hard drive, using a utility such as Time Machine (Mac) or DT Utilities PC Backup (Windows).  If possible, keep a copy of the backed-up data in a separate location from the master computer.
    • Use a neutral format (if possible): There is no standard email format; each client program encodes basic email format in a different way.  Some formats, such as the .pst format, which is used for Outlook local folders, are harder to migrate and more prone to corruption, than other formats.  The mbox and the.eml format families can be freely migrated between most email clients.  Consider using an open source client, such as or Thunderbird or Zimbra to manage local content.

[Back to Text] 1. See for a good description of how email servers and clients operate.

[Back to Text] 2. Depending on how your email software is configured, the autoarchive feature may be turned on by default and may even automatically delete messages without your knowledge. How to’s article “Configure Autoarchive in Outlook 2007” is a good resource for describing how to configure one popular program.

[Back to Text] 3. If you have multiple email accounts and/or use multiple computers to access the accounts, it is very easy to find sent mail stored in many locations across many servers.  For example, if you follow Gmail’s recommended settings, you sent mail will be stored on multiple computers, complicating future preservation.   For preservation it would best to store the messages on the server and optionally, to name one master sent mail folder per account.  See the appendix below for instructions regarding the configuration of sent-mail locations.

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Appendix: Configuring Sent-Mail Locations

In order to ensure that your sent mail is stored sensibly, it may be necessary to configure your email software to store the mail in a location other than the default location where the application will put the mail.  This is particularly true if you use multiple computers and or pieces of software to access your mail.  Generally speaking, it is best to store the sent messages on the server which sent them in the pre-existing “Sent Items” folder.  Unfortunately, some clients misleading label a differently-name folder as “Sent Items,” so it is not always easy to tell where the messages are actually being saved.  Through trial and experiment, you should be able to learn where each program is saving its sent messages.  Then you can use the instructions below to ensure that all of the computers and programs you use to send mail are saving messages to the same physical folder.


Thunderbird: Tools->Account Settings->"Copies and Folders"

OSX Mail (

Mac Mail: Select Mailbox to use for Sent messages; then Memus Mailbox->Use This Mailbox For->Sent

Outlook 2007

  • If connecting to Exchange Server: You can only save sent messages in the “Sent Mail folder” or (for messages NOT in the inbox, with the original message, under the Advanced Email Options button on the screen shown below.):

Outlook (for Exchange Server): Tools->Options->Preferences Tab->Email Options

  • If connecting to non-Exchange IMAP account:   By default, outlook 2007 saves messages sent from non-Exchange accounts, such as a personal account access through outlook, in the Sent Items folder in Outlook.  The actual location of this file,  but on your local hard drive.)  The first time you send an e-mail message with your IMAP account, you may prompted to choose the folder where you want sent items saved.If you need to change to location to which sent messages are saved:
    • On the Tools menu, click Account Settings.
    • Select an e-mail account that is not an Exchange account, and then click Change.
    • Click More Settings.
    • In the Internet E-mail Settings dialog box, click the Folders tab.
    • Click Choose an existing folder or create a new folder to save your sent items for this account in.
    • Click a folder to save the sent items in, or click New Folder.

Outlook 2007: Mapping IMAP Acount Sent Folder Location

Pine or Alpine

Pine/Alpine: (M)ain->(S)etup->(C)onfig->Default FCC

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