Related product Collections Management

Archival Preservation 101: Email Archiving

Shelby Strommer, Collections Care Coordinator, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Email is a ubiquitous form of communication in our personal and professional lives, and those messages can serve as an important record of everything from personal experiences to institutional decisions. Since email messages can be a vital part of the historical record, the CARLI Preservation Committee talked to two specialists in the email preservation field from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: Chris Prom, Interim Juanita J. and Robert E. Simpson Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, and Ruby Martinez, Email Archives Community Fellow in the Office of Digital Strategies. 

Martinez recently conducted a survey of archival repositories in Illinois, and a large portion of respondents do not currently acquire email (full report to be published in 2023). Unlike paper-based correspondence, email preservation can present some unique policy, workflow, and technical challenges. This article provides a basic introduction for institutions who are interested in incorporating email archiving into their digital preservation programs. For more detailed technical information, Prom and Martinez recommend the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) report, Preserving Email (Second Edition), and The Future of Email Archives report from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).

In 2012, Prom presented a webinar for CARLI entitled “Preserving Email: Why to Do So (And How).” What major changes have developed in email preservation in the past 10 years?

Prom said the biggest change is access to more and better tools for email archiving work. A variety of open-source and proprietary tools are listed in Preserving Email (2nd Edition). Prom explained that while there is no one-size-fits-all email archiving solution, workflows are more firmly established and standardized than they were in 2012. The Future of Email Archives report includes several workflow scenarios to help institutions develop their own strategies. He also noted that more institutions are archiving email than in 2012. Technology developments provide a lower barrier to entry, and institutions may find the biggest challenges are institutional policy concerns rather than technical issues.  

What major challenges do information professionals face related to email preservation, and how can they mitigate those challenges?

The main challenge, according to Prom, is having access to a body of emails to process and provide access. Institutional archives may collect email as part of their records management program, and manuscript or special collections may work with donors to transfer ownership via a deed of gift. In both cases, it’s important to build trust with institutional policy makers and potential donors, who may be reluctant to provide access to email. 

Institutional archives can work with institutional leaders to develop a policy to integrated into their existing records management program. As with paper-based subject files, the institution may want to create a policy to ensure collection materials are restricted or closed for a period of time. They will also need a policy in place to protect information that is not legally sharable. Prom also noted that it can be helpful to have an example collection to serve as a proof of concept for email archiving. 

For collections working with a private donor, Prom’s core recommendation is to develop an understanding between the archivist and donor about what will and won’t be included in the collection. For example, a donor may ask to remove health records or correspondence with family members. Archivists can define that information in the deed of gift and utilize tools to remove the desired records. 

How can information professionals advocate for email preservation in their institutions?

It’s important to be frank about what will be lost to the historical record if we don’t preserve these collections. Prom is concerned that in 30-40 years, we won’t be able to document important institutional history without these collections. He points out that most research that takes place in archives uses records that were not publicly accessible at the time of creation. Prom recommends developing an elevator pitch to relay this message to the larger institution. He also notes the importance of having an individual who understands and champions the importance of institutional record keeping. 

If CARLI member institutions are interested in starting an email preservation program, where should they begin?

In addition to the resources listed at the end of this article, Prom recommends individuals seek out training to get a solid base to begin a program. For example, the Society of American Archives Course Catalog has several courses related to email archiving. Martinez acknowledged that email archiving can be a big project but emphasized that it is manageable and doable. She recommends talking to colleagues who are already doing the work to help demystify email archiving. 

Prom and Martinez also highlighted two additional grants related to email archiving and preservation. The University of Illinois, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is leading the Email Archives: Building Capacity and Community (EA:BCC) program. This multi-year grant provides funding to support projects that will enhance the ability to preserve email. Through the second project, Email Archiving in PDF: From Initial Specification to Community of Practice, the University of Illinois is developing a file format standard to archive email in PDF form. The software is still in development and won’t be immediately available, but will eventually allow institutions to package, preserve, and provide access to email as PDF documents. 

Recommended Resources

•    The Future of Email Archives, Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) 
•    Preserving Email (Second Edition), Digital Preservation Coalition
•    Preserving Email: Digital Preservation Topical Note 7, Digital Preservation Coalition
•    Email Archives: Building Capacity and Community grant program
•    Preserving Email: Why to Do So (and How) CARLI webinar, presented by Chris Prom, recorded May 1, 2012
•    Society of American Archivists Course Catalog

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