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.