Email Archiving: Strategies, Tools, Techniques was a one-day workshop held on August 1, 2019. Chris Prom (University of Illinois) and Tricia Patterson (Harvard University) taught the workshop, which gave a broad overview of the opportunities and challenges of email archiving and some tools that can be used to make this daunting task easier.
As a processing archivist, email sits squarely within the electronic records processing workflow I’m helping develop: I took this class to build my digital archiving skills and to learn about techniques for managing email archives. Attending this class while my department is developing a digital archiving workflow helped me think ahead about technical limitations, ethical considerations, storage, and access issues related to email.
For me, the class was a good introduction to the opportunities and challenges of preserving this ephemeral and widespread communication. The class was divided into three sections: Assessing Needs and Challenges, Understanding Tools and Techniques, and Implementing Workflows. These sections were based on the Lifecycle of Email Model from The Future of Email Archives CLIR Report.
During the first portion of the class, we discussed the types of communication that occur through email, and the functions which fall under the creation and use as well as appraisal and selection categories of the email lifecycle. This section featured an interesting group activity asking us to list all of the email accounts we had used in our lifetime, the type of correspondence that occurred on the platform, an estimated size of the collection, and the scope and contents. This exercise helped illustrate how large, multifaceted, and varied even a single email a collection can be: I found this exercise effective for thinking about the complexities of archiving email.
In the second section, Prom and Patterson walked the class through seven tools for capturing and processing emails. The instructors gave a brief description of each tool’s functions and where they fit in the lifecycle model before giving a demo. Unfortunately, the demo portion was the weakest part of this workshop for me: instead of a live demonstration, the instructors used screenshots and a video recording. It was difficult to read the screenshots and the slides containing the screenshots do not have any explanatory text, so unless you took good notes, it would be difficult to understand how these tools work after the class was over. If SAA offers this class again, I would suggest the instructors do a live demo and provide more notes on how the tools work so that we can use class materials as a resource when we are doing this work at our own institutions.
The group activity for this class was to export a small portion of our own email and use one of the tools discussed in class to begin processing. During this activity, we discovered that Yahoo makes it difficult or impossible to export email. I think this activity would have been more effective if we had been told to download our own emails and how before the class began. Most of the time allotted for this activity was spent figuring out how to download our emails and waiting for them to download, so we never got the chance to use the programs we discussed.
Overall, I thought the class provided a good introduction to the complexities of preserving email and introducing open-source and hosted tools that help with different parts of the email lifecycle. I would recommend this class to people who are exploring how to archive email and what would work for their institution.
Kahlee Leingang is a Processing Archivist at Iowa State University, where she works on creating guidelines and workflows for processing, preservation, and access of born-digital records as well as processing collections in the backlog.