Personal correspondence is a common form by which people document their experiences and has served as essential primary source material used by historians and scholars in many humanities and social science disciplines. Archives of correspondence help future generations to understand and learn from lived experience, providing evidence of the functions and activities of governments, business, non-profit organizations, families, and individuals. Today, much of that correspondence is embedded in digital forms of expression, particularly in email.
While archivists, technologists, librarians, and others interested in preserving the cultural record have made progress in capturing, preserving, and providing access to various forms of digital expression, email has remained resistant to a variety of efforts at preservation and is currently not systematically acquired by most archives and libraries. Part of the problem is that email is no one thing, but rather a complicated interaction of technical subsystems for composition, transport, viewing, and storage. Archiving email involves multiple processes including acquisition and appraisal of collections, processing records, meeting privacy and legal considerations, preserving messages and attachments, and facilitating access.
The preservation of email thus cannot rely on a single, comprehensive solution, but on the coupling and interaction of a variety of solutions covering the entire range of archival activities, from appraising the research value of email to helping researchers discover and use it.
Recent workshops and meetings of specialists in the area of email archiving suggest that the time is right to: (a) reexamine and assess current efforts to preserve email; (b) articulate a conceptual and technical framework in which these efforts can operate not as competing solutions, but as elements of an interoperable toolkit to be applied as needed; and (c) construct a working agenda for the community to construct this technical framework, adjust existing tools to work within this framework, and begin to fill in missing elements.
The Task Force on Technical Approaches to Email Archives is charged to examine these three issues over the next 12 months. The task force will prepare a report of its findings with recommendations for the specific actions that those interested in email archiving could take to demonstrate within 2-5 years that archives can safely accession and preserve records of human expression in the form of email.
Chris Prom (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and
Kate Murray (Library of Congress)
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
The Digital Preservation Coalition