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?

First, we need to note that email is a ‘saturation’ technology.  Of course, a great deal of business and personal activity takes place within blogs, social networks, instant messaging programs, video chat services, and electronic messaging systems, all of which continue to evolve.   Such materials are well worth documenting and preserving for cultural heritage reason, and several projects are underway to do so: the Library of Congress is capturing an archives of all public tweets and numerous website harvesting services are available. Blog preservation projects, with significant external funding, are also underway.  These worthy efforts must continue, but in comparison to them, email preservation has been treated like an unwanted stepchild, with few projects and relatively little institutional or grant support.

This is particularly unfortunate, because the types of records that email generates probably have even more long-term value than publicly available works that are the subject of major commercial, national, and international projects.  Not only is email use widespread, but actions taken using email software are embedded into people’s daily work and personal lives in ways that other technologies are not.  This is true not only for the many people who deliberately use email programs to organize their digital records and make them searchable–which is a very large group of people– but for others as well.

Email generates a constantly evolving yet fragile record of activities and evidence regarding actions taken by businesses or individuals.  The way in which email transfer agents and end user programs operate means that individual messages evidence that is relatively difficult to modify or corrupt, unlike a blog entry or website which can be changed with nary a trace .  Each time the user hits the send key, their activity is documented through the accumulation of actions, recorded as metadata in the emails headers, showing exactly what an individual wrote, to whom they wrote it to, and what time.

Although it is not difficult to forge some of this information at time of sending, such fogeries are easy to spot, and it is much more difficult to modify metadata after the fact, unless the user has a deep familiarilty with email formats, as well as advanced computer skills. Since email documents actions, it is valuable not only for the information it contains but for the evidence it records: the who, what, where, when (and even sometimes the why questions can all be answered using email.

In spite of policy advice to the contrary  and the fact that email is usually transmitted in unencrypted form, users often write things that were not meant to be revealed to the entire world at the time the action took place.  For this reason alone, it is unlikely that email disappear anytime soon, and it can be a uniquely valuable resource that presents seemingly well known events in a whole new light; it is no wonder that email is frequently the targets of agents provocateurs, who go to great lengths to procure documents that can be used as evidence; the theft of email or leaks of email have resulted in two of the most sensational exposés in recent history, the Wikileaks and Climategate scandals.

Information contained in email has destroyed entire corporations, such as the American power company Enron and its auditor Arthur Andersen, and its mismanagement resulted in some of the largest civil fines in history. While we don’t necessarily want to remind users of this fact, there are positive ways to encourage people to keep a good record of their own lives, and to donate to an archives when they are retired and able to reflect on the true significance of their lives.

In the long term, it is likely that the historical value of email messages will only increase, since it is a documentary form that lays bare the real sinews of history, instead of the makeup that is applied to the surface, via more public forms of communication.  In addition, literary and other scholars have reinforced the invaluable nature of correspondence for historical, sociological, biographical, literary, and other uses.

What is less obvious, at least to the public at large and even to many members of the academic community, is that email constitutes an appropriate object of long-term historical preservation, demanding appropriate management for that goal. As an eminent historian of American higher education, Winton Solberg remarked to the author recently, “historical research will be absolutely impossible in the future unless your profession finds a way to save email.”

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  • Fynnette Eaton

    Chris,
    I completely agree.  A key problem is that each person must be a records manager and almost everyone has no interest in doing that.  Further, at least for Federal agencies, managing email is left to IT for them to store in case of e-Discovery, not as something that might have long-term value for research in the future.  There is no good guidance on filing and retaining email and most of the applications are costly and are not well-used.  Clearly I am expressing my own opinion.

  • Andrew Penta, CRM

    You only have to imagine what it would be like if Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Washington, et al, had e-mail in the 1770’s to get an idea of the potential of an archive based on this media.