Required Email Reading: Richard Cox

On June 23, 2011, in Research, by Chris Prom

I’ve been making my way through a growing bibliography of articles, blog postings, technical standards, and product literature concerning email preservation–most of which is convincing me that there are several viable technical solutions on offer, but that the we (i.e. the archival profession) have a lot of work to do to integrate them into a coherent strategy.  More to the point, that we (archivists) have done a horrible job of making the case as to why email should be preserved (if only we could establish a meme was well as some of our so-called political ‘leaders’).

Very little of the literature presents the case for email preservation in a way that is likely to resonate with people outside the archival community.  I had person experience with this recently, when speaking with a grant officer from a major foundation, who seemed incredulous that anyone would want to save email for historical reasons.

Richard Cox addresses the causes and consequences of our failure to articulate a clear message in Chapter Seven of his book Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling.  I don’t have time to give a detailed synopsis of this chapter (the contents of which belie its bland title “Electronic Main and Personal Record Keeping”), but it is extremely valuable for the insight it provides into the conflicting perspectives that records managers and archivists have brought to the question, as well as for its history of false starts in preserving email. It is also useful for the legal environment surrounding long-term management of email.

Much is bubbling right now regarding email preservation (in particular Harvard’s Project), but before people get too excited about new tools and services, we should take a hard look at a quote that Richard includes from David Bearman, circa 1994:

As a new documentary form, electronic mail is not governed by many conventions.  In its management we are forced therefore to eduction users about how these systems  and our in house files work, design systems that recognize records of specific business functions and treat them accordingly, implement systems which segregate the creation and storage locations so that records must cross over software switches that can assess how they should be managed, and deploy standards that contribute to better documentation of the content of electronic mail, particularly documentation standards.

That is a pretty fair summary of the (halting) attempts to implement email preservation systems since then, and Cox rightly asks how far we have come since 1994.  But is there not another question we must ask?

Doesn’t the approach Bearman outlines above requires too much of both users and archivists?  It has been tried, to a limited extent, yes, but in the instances where it was tried it failed (more on this later).   What if, instead of treating each email message as a record worthy of appraisal, classification and capture, we treated the entire stream of messages that an individual sends as the object of appraisal?  Would we then truly partnered with users to capture that stream for their own benefit, as an organic whole, in real time?  If so, what would such a system look like?  I’ll have more thoughts on that in upcoming posts.

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  • Mary

    So many typos and grammatical errors, I can’t continue reading this.  Get a proofreader!

  • Thanks Mary.  I fixed some of them. Long time readers of this blog will know that what I publish here is essentially my first draft/random thoughts, and that I use it for source materials for publication later. It is imperfect by design since we live messy, busy lives.

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