Back 2 (Library) School: Email Archiving Guest Post

By Allison Fischbach, Research and Archives Associate, Towson University / MLIS Candidate, University of Maryland / SAA Web Archiving Steering Committee Student Member (2020-2021) 

Think about the last time you saw an archive in a movie. (The scene that always comes to my mind is the one where Gandalf descends into a vault of antiquated books and finds a single, aged drawing of the One Ring.  A classic.)  

But no matter what scene you’re thinking of, I can guess a few things that you saw. Probably a lot of old books and stacks of dusty paper. This reflects a very traditional view of what an archive is and does; mainly, store information on paper – newsletters, memos, minuets, correspondence, fliers, announcements, and more. 

Over the past 30 years the digital revolution has changed the way we connect, send messages, and manage work. When we think of how all that important information is shared today is it largely through emails. Digital newsletters, e-invites, email correspondence, event announcements and more come into our email inbox, supplanting the need for so much paper. But where do the emails go from there? 

In the past, many paper-based records benefitted from a practice called “benign neglect.” This means that even if you took a letter and stuck away in a drawer or a shoebox, you could still pull it out and read it 10, or 20, or 100 years later. 

The same cannot be said for digital records like emails. Besides becoming lost on different desktops, shared folders, and email servers, they can also become inaccessible. The rapid change in digital technologies means file types and programs quickly become outdated. This is called “digital obsolescence” and means even files that are only a decade old might no longer be accessible or readable on modern machines. 

The email material we create and receive has historical value, but we can’t be passive about collecting it.

No more waiting 30 years and then sending a box of valuable papers to the archives. Without direct and constant interventions, there are simply no emails available to donate after 30 years. We can see that email archiving is important, but it must be an ongoing, active practice. 

​There are many reasons why you might setup an email archiving practice. Maybe you want to preserve records of an important project or historic event, keep materials for annual reviews or updating your CV, or ensure you don’t lose personal records and correspondence. Whatever your reason, the best thing you can do is integrate archiving into your normal workflow.  

Tips for Email Archiving:  

  1. Create a dedicated “Archived Emails” folder in your inbox.  

The good news is many of the most popular email programs, like Gmail and Outlook, already have built-in archive functions. You can use these functions to automatically back up and save valuable emails.  

The easiest way to do this is create a dedicated “Archived Emails” folder in your inbox. Using the built-in archiving function, you can set this folder to save backups to your desktop or a remote server as often as you’d like. This way, any email you move into this folder will be automatically saved as either an .mbox or .pst file. These file types also store metadata about the sender, recipient, date, links, and attachments.  

2. Develop a schedule to sort and save emails. 

Part of creating an email archiving practice is establishing a workflow that works for you. Best practice is to sort and move emails into your archive folder on a regular schedule, so that emails aren’t lost to the depths of your inbox.  

You might want to sort and backup emails each month, each semester, or at the end of each year. Saving emails after the end of big projects or during regular office clean-outs are also good ideas. There is no hard and fast rule about how often you should save materials, but setting up a schedule that coincides with other regular activities will help you remember.

3. Reach out to your college or university archive. 

Email archiving is not yet an established practice in most college and university archives, but it is gaining popularity as institutions begin to understand the need to keep these valuable records.  Touch base with the repository you want to receive your emails to ensure the information you’re saving is valuable to their collections. Some archives may also have specific types of emails in mind, certain file formats, or workflows for donating that can inform your archiving schedule.  

The good news is you can help save historical records starting today! Creating archived files is the first step in making sure archives of the future have valuable information about today.  

Many digital archivist groups are working on the next step in email archiving by developing open-source management programs that store archived emails, make them searchable, and provide user access. None of these programs are ready for widespread use, but they show a promising future for storing and accessing email information. 

Resources for Further Reading: 

Set up an “Archived Emails” folder in Gmail  

Set up an “Archived Emails” folder in Outlook 

RATOM: Review, Appraisal, and Triage of Mail (UNC)  

Mailbag Project (SUNY Albany) 

Allison presented on this topic at the April 2021 ACRL MD Meeting. Her slides and the notes from that meeting can be found in our minutes archive here. If you are a current library school student or graduate interested in presenting during our Back to Library School series, submit your interest here!

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