Preserving Email: The Nature of the Problem

On August 2, 2011, in Research, by Chris Prom

On July 29, I attended and spoke at a member briefing for the Digital Preservation Coalition, in London, at the Wellcome Collection Conference Center.    The session covered the topic “Email Preservation: Directions and Perspectives.”  Over the next few days, I’ll be summarizing some of the main conclusions from my seminar, which is feeding into my tech watch report.

My role was to lead off by discussing “Email: the Nature of the Problem.”   A copy of my Powerpoint is available on the DPC page that is linked above.  Reflecting on my own personal experience with email migration and what I have learned since starting my project to write an email preservation guide, I argued that email is difficult to preserve for four overriding reasons:

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Why is Email Preservation Important?

On July 22, 2011, in Research, by Chris Prom

As I noted in a prior post, I really feel as if no one is making a case to the public as to why email should be preserved for its permanent research value.  Until we do that, the archival profession is unlikely to make much progress in preserving it for future research value.  What might such a case look like?

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David Bearman, David Gewirtz, and Email

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

Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been doing background reading for my guide to email preservation, I’ve come to the conclusion that, although there are a few exciting projects going on, most institutions seem hamstrung in their ability to identify, preserve, and provide continuing access to the fundamentally valuable records that result from many email transactions.  This isn’t, I believe, due to a lack of potential technical options.

While I was mulling this point over, I read two strangely complementary books, David Bearman’s Electronic Evidence Strategies for Managing Records in Contemporary Organizations (1994), which has a chapter on email preservation, and David Gewirtz’s Where Have All the Emails Gone? (2007). The books could not be more different in tone, structure, or overall conclusions.

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Email Preservation Guide Teaser

On July 6, 2011, in Research, by Chris Prom

Here’s the first draft of the intro to my upcoming report on email preservation:

In 1965, Tom Van Vleck and Noel Morris sent what were perhaps the world’s first electronic messages to each other, using the mail function that they developed for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Compatible Time Sharing System (Van Vleck 2010).  Those who used the mail command in CTTS and its successor system, MULTICS (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service), embraced the technology with fervor (Multicians.org n.d.).  However, a late 1960s memo in the archives related to the project noted that “ [t]he memos seems to have been superseded by email.”  After that point, the documentation that has survived and been accessioned to the MIT archives thins out in both quantity and quality. (Morris 2011).  And of course, the first actual email messages exchanged by Van Vleck and Morris have  long since gone missing.

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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’).

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History of Email: Noel Morris and Tom Van Vleck

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

The documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is currently running a five part, extended blog entry on NYTimes.com.  It really is essential reading if you want to know where email, as a documentary form, came from.  Interesting to note in part four how those in Project MAC at MIT almost immediately noted “The memos seem to have been superseded by e-mail.”

I’ll withhold my comments for now, but this piece is really worth a read: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/author/errol-morris/, not only for what it says about the invention of email, but also as a shout out to MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections.

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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.

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The Power of Patience

On June 11, 2010, in Research, by Chris Prom

The longer I’ve worked with electronic records issues (and admittedly, it has only been ten months), the more convinced I’ve become of one essential fact: it pays to wait.

This may seem like contrarian advice, since most of the received wisdom regarding electronic records management holds that we must be involved with records creators early in the life cycle.  One typical argument: that early involvement helps ensure that records producers store and describe records using a logical file structure and descriptive standards.  However,  many efforts to affect user’s records creating habits are doomed to failure, because everyone has a different work style, uses different tools, and simply needs to get on with living their lives, and working with users one to one is not—to use the buzzword—scalable.  Anything that requires more work out of them will be rejected, and I have yet to see many live examples of electronic records management projects that actually make people’s lives easier.  (If you think I am being provocative, please send me examples and I am MORE than willing to highlight them.)

Anyway, I became even more convinced that there is power in patience after being confronted with a personal email migration three days after returning to the University of Illinois.

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Last week, I had an interesting lunchtime conversation with Geoff Barton, who directs the bioinformatics group at the University of Dundee’s College of Life Sciences.  Going into the conversation, I had hoped that it might prove possible to work with his group to identify one or more datasets and/or applications that would be suitable for inclusion in a pilot deposit project for a pilot ARMMS e-records repository.  In the end, that did not prove as feasible as I hoped, but in the process I gained a bit of insight into the particular challenges of working with the electronic ‘papers’ of faculty members.

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