Preserving emails. How hard can it be?

By Jim Costin, Bridging the Digital Gap Trainee
Emails. Most of us have at least one email account with some people having as many as eight or nine. Since the introduction of the internet, email has been seen as an easy way of communicating between two parties and has now, for most of us, replaced traditional posted letters and fax machines.

However, unlike as the picture above shows, emails are not without their downsides. For example, how often have you had to search back through a giant email thread for something only to find it’s in an entirely different email account? Or, how often have you tried to find that one email from someone you need to contact again only to find that it’s been deleted accidentally and you can’t get it back?

Those are just some of the issues which present themselves when working with emails as opposed to letters. From an archival standpoint, however, things are much more difficult.
I thought you could just take an inbox and preserve that?
Well, that’s not that easy. Whilst it might be considered easy to just print out all of the emails and stick them in a box, that is not really solving the problem and, in many ways, is creating more. The actual exporting of the emails from an inbox can be very difficult to do depending on which company is hosting the emails. Microsoft is one of the more difficult ones due to the use of the proprietary .pst files whereas Google uses the open-source .mbox format and offers a facility to export all email data in a convenient zipped file.

But, just exporting the emails is half the problem. Now that they are out, do you preserve them as you would another digital file or do you to adopt a new process?
But why should we preserve them?
Preserving emails is not a small undertaking, despite what it might seem on the surface. Given how widespread emails are and the vast sizes which some threads can be, some organisations may think that the cost of preservation may be too high for something which might not be used for many years.

However, just like paper archives, email archives present a multitude of evidential benefits and can help to substantiate a story of decision making. In environments where quick decisions are required, often times it can be a simple email which determines the outcome. One example might be the decision by an organisation to appoint a certain contractor for a job. If it transpires that an incentive was offered for choosing one over the other, one of the parties may attempt to showcase that a fair competition was not carried out. By preserving the emails and ensuring they are still accessible, the organisation will be able to justify its position and show that protocols were either followed or not followed.

Had the organisation not preserved its emails, they would instead have to rely on other means of justification which would likely not stand up as well if the case went to court. Admittedly, this is an extreme example but just the same as paper archives, emails have now gained significant evidential value and in some cases can make the difference between costly lawsuits and dismissals.
What work has been done?
At present, the sector as a whole is aware of the need to preserve emails however, aside from one or two institutions, very few places can truly say they are ‘preserving emails’. However, work on researching the topic and suggesting ways to potentially do it has been done with the Digital Preservation Coalition releasing a technology watch back in 2011 on it. Furthermore, earlier this year a collaborative research project was launched between the University of Hull  and this archive to research what software packages exist for email archiving and whether they can assist in the long-term preservation.

In celebration of World Digital Preservation Day, the report from the project is now available to be viewed after having undergone a small update since the time of writing.


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