10.26.2010

Preserving E-Mails

Do you save your e-mails? If so, how do you organize them? Do you keep them permanently? On what basis do you decide which messages to save?

I don’t save my e-mails other than those I need for short-term purposes and then they go to the trash. From out of the thousands I’ve received by now, those that I want to save I copy as a Word document or enter in a previous document that deals with its subject. On the other hand, a friend of mine saves almost all of her e-mails. She says she is a bit of a neurotic about this matter.

“I delete almost nothing except for junk mail and group emails that don't really apply to me …I have a lot of folders/subfolders…I have a "library school" folder with folders in it for individual classes I took. I have a general work folder for my department, and one for the whole company. If there is something involving a lot of correspondence, I set it up its own folder. I have a "friends" folder but I separated out my Pratt [her library school] friends and jewelry-making friends …an "orders" folder since I buy a lot of stuff online and at some point, I decided to make a subfolder for book orders …”

The preservation of electronic mail extends well beyond personal practices. It is a matter of considerable concern to historians and biographers of all disciplines who hitherto have had a rich source of written materials to draw upon in their research. Are we loosing too much information of this sort by communicating on the Internet rather than in written letters?

It is generally assumed that written letters have a degree of permanence that is quite different than messages sent over the Internet. In a review of M. F. K. Fischer’s A Life in Letters, Betty Fussell comments: “Had she lived in another decade, many of her letters might have been lost forever, flashed on screen to be read and discarded in a matter of minutes. A Life in Letters reminds one of what is lost in the magic of electronic mail: permanence.”

Robert Crease, a physicist, makes a similar point in discussing the future work of science historians faced with the fact that e-mail, rather than written letters, has become the normal method scientists use to communicate with each other. He cites the famous 1941 meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Nils Bohr in Nazi occupied Denmark to discuss the development of the atomic bomb. There are several accounts of this meeting, not all of them in agreement, but according to Crease, recently discovered draft letters that Bohr had written about their meeting serve as a “corrective to Heisenberg’s version, showing it to be deceitful and self-serving.”

The same is true for literary correspondents. In Literary Letters, Lost in Cyberspace (New York Times 9/4/05) Rachel Donadio says publishers who routinely correspond with writers have not developed a systematic way to preserve their e-mails. She notes the New Yorker routinely purges their e-mails and reports that Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor at the magazine, admits that she doesn’t always save the messages from the many writers she corresponds with.

“Unfortunately, since I haven’t discovered any convenient way to electronically archive e-mail correspondence, I don’t usually save it, and it gets erased from our server after a few months.” Donadio also reports that Blake Bailey, who has written biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, worries, “It often occurs to me that e-mail may render a certain kind of literary biography all but obsolete.”

While methods of electronic communication may be useful for rapid communication among scientists and cultural historians, it remains uncertain whether they will be preserved at all and how this might affect historians in the future. I am aware there are various proposals to promote the preservation of electronic documents, but I have no knowledge of their present state.

I do know, however, that e-mail messages can also be every bit as tangible and as permanent as a written letter. They can be saved in computer folders, zip drives, an external hard drive or printed so that they are physically indistinguishable from a traditional letter. It is a simple matter to print and then file hard copies of e-mail messages so that you can, in fact, have a paper trail of your correspondence while at the same time benefiting from the advantages of rapid electronic communication.

In short, e-mail messages do not simply disappear after they have been sent. And there is nothing about e-mail messages per se that prevents them from being every bit as useful to future historians and interested readers as traditional letters. Had Virginia Woolf been able to send her voluminous correspondence over the Internet, there is no inherent reason she could not have filed away her hand-written drafts or printed copies of her messages so that they could drawn upon for the multiple volumes that have been published to date.

The example of Zadie Smith, a writer of considerable contemporary renown, is instructive. She says she has preserved 12,000 e-mail messages that she has exchanged with her literary friends. “The great majority of it is correspondence with other writers, my editor, my copy editor, etc. Some of them are amazing e-mails from writers whose hem I fear to kiss, etc.” Donadio reports Salman Rushdie is one of several other writers who save their e-mails. “Yes, I have saved my e-mails, written and received since the mid-90’s when I started using computers regularly…”

So it is not only possible, it is easy, and it is being done. The matter of preserving electronic communications may not be quite as serious as some envisage.

Thanks to Stefanie Hollmichel of So Many Books for stimulating me to consider this issue.

8 comments:

Gillian said...

Yes, I think it is a matter of personal work habits. Some people have good filing systems and others don't.

At an organisational level, I guess that practice depends on resources and policy. I'm surprised the NYT doesn't have better archiving capabilities to cater for electronic communication.

I wonder whether US govt depts have effective electronic archives. Here in Australia, all government agencies are required by law to archive electronic communication in the same way that paper records are archived.

I tend to save emails in folders. This is partly because my work is project based and I need to find records associated with projects.

Another aspect of email is web-based services like gmail which I use for personal email. Again, I tend to save all but the most trivial emails (meet you on Friday at 6.00?).

Regarding posterity, we recently disposed of my mother's belongings when she passed away. Basically we threw out nearly everything. We emptied her shelves of photo albums by keeping only those photos with people we recognised. What we kept can be stored in a single plastic storage box. I wonder what we would have done if she had substantial electronic records?

I think it must be challenging for academics who have a body of work that is their legacy. If they can't find a repository for it, then it is left to the family to dispose or store. And then?

Richard Katzev said...

Thanks Gillian. I don't know about the New York Times. Why do you say that don't have better archiving capabilities? My reference was to The New Yorker magazine.

The body of my academic publications is in the books and articles I've written. I'm content with that.

And I am a person in the transition period between printed copies and electronic copies. Everything now is in electronic form. Everything before has been published and what hasn't been published has been sent to the recycling center.

Gillian said...

Oops, sorry, New Yorker...

I read the phrase "the New Yorker routinely purges their e-mails" as a systemic organisational procedure. If the server is going to purge your email and doesn't offer an automatic archiving function, then users will need to implement a manual (i.e. time-consuming) way to save each email. Naturally, the default is to let them get deleted which seem a pity for some correspondence.

We don't always see the value/interest in a whole correspondence when we are drip feeding it piece by piece. (Though I suspect that many writers compose private correspondence with an eye on posterity.)

Do you remember that book of letters between an American book buyer and an antiquarian bookseller in Charing Cross Road, London? Ms Google tells me it is "84 Charing Cross Road" by Helen Hanff. There's a book that could only be published because both correspondents kept the letters.

The correspondence isn't momentous, but it speaks at a personal level to the core of human experience.

Regarding academics, I remember interviewing a retired science academic in his home. He showed me his room full of filing cabinets that we wanted an institution to archive. He saw the value in them as a collection, but no one wanted them. I have felt a bit sad that it was probably left to his family to dispose of the contents.

Now, what do you think about Presidential libraries? I guess that they're grappling with electronic correspondence with each new ex. Obama's Blackberry?

Richard Katzev said...

Oh, yes, I remember Haff's book, as well as the film that was made of it. But I've also read books composed of e-mail exchanges. No film, however.

The academic you've interviewed describes an experience that is not unlike one I suspect will happen to me, as well.

stefanie said...

Government and business archiving of email is a completely different animal than personal archives. I believe the U.S. government, at least some departments, have automatic filters that send emails off for preservation. Who goes through it all and creates the metadata for it I have no idea. As far as personal preservation goes, emails must be saved in a neutral format so they are not dependent on a particular mail program or other proprietary software. It is an interesting dilemma. I am fascinated to hear about all of Zadie Smith's emails. I would love to talk to her about how she organizes them all and what steps she takes to make sure they will still be readable in 10 or 20 years or longer. You wouldn't happen to have her phone number would you? ;-)

Richard Katzev said...

Zadie and I date each other often. But she asked me not tell anyone her phone number.

Shelley said...

As a writer, my main worry is not only that great writers' e-mails may be forever lost, but that the e-mail format itself doesn't have an aura (!) that encourages the kind of contemplation that letter-writing once did.

Richard Katzev said...

Shelley, Thank you for your comment. I tend to feel a little differently. Once an e-mail is preserved as a printed document, there is very little difference in "aura." I get typewritten letters all the time that among the most provocative of any hand-written letter. Richard