MidiPres January 2021: a closer look at email

No, not emails (Image by Andrys Stienstra from Pixabay)

It doesn’t seem five minutes since the last meeting of Midipres (and I said that last time) but here we are in 2021 and time for another Midlands Preservation Network event which brings together practitioners from across the UK Midlands region to share and discuss their digital preservation stories. This meeting had a special theme – email preservation – which proved a popular topic with many and we had some lively discussion covering a range of topics from normalisation to appraisal and access.

We kicked off with a case study from a group member who had received some emails as part of a deposit of various digital records from a Parish Council (no not Handforth!) including emails saved onto a cd in an .eml format. The archives were having trouble opening the emails* and had concerns that converting them to another format as that created problems with the attachments… We had a useful discussion around how much of the available literature addresses the issue of migrating and dealing with entire mailboxes rather than having a handful of emails amongst other material (I’ve certainly come across the latter scenario more than once). We talked about the various formats that you were likely to come across – .pst, .mbox and so on and how much or little influence you might have about asking for a particular format.

A couple of others shared their work – one archivist had been collecting Covid update emails from the Chief Executive’s Office as part of their contemporary collecting strategy but had concerns (don’t we all) about embedded links to external content including videos. I don’t think anyone has the answer to these issues but there would be useful work mapping out what might be possible and the sorts of tools needed to achieve this kind of capture. Another group member shared a success story in that they had succeeded where I have failed (I am not bitter about this at all!) in getting a deposit of the inbox of one of the Chief Officers in their organisation. It required developing a new deposit agreement and some significant degree of negotiation but to me sounds like a huge success and I look forward to hearing on further updates on this, hoping we might be able to emulate their success. We discussed the attitudes people have towards their emails and how the mixing of personal and professional in email accounts made the management and capture of email particularly challenging. One of the group mentioned James Lappin’s recent blog post on this very topic and I shall be reading his article with great interest. Getting people to weed their emails in advance of depositing sounds like it could be challenging and we were pointed towards a recent IRMS podcast where Vincent Hoolt of the Netherlands National Archives discussed the pitfalls of exactly this, talking about how they had inadvertently received the divorce papers of a government official – not just embarrassing but a GDPR nightmare!

The thrill of a live demo of Emailchemy (photo author’s own)

I followed this up by giving as live demo (brave I know) of Emailchemy – a tool for converting email to different formats. I’ve had a go with this and with Aid4Mail in their demo versions and can definitely seeing them being useful for future work especially in conjunction with ePADD which I’ve also written about before. I am very enthusiastic about the potential use of things like ePADD for both appraisal and access to email collections. There was more discussion about cataloguing email collections and I’m sure we’ll be looking to talk more about cataloguing born digital in a future session.

In the meantime I think I’ll get back to sniffing around after those institutional email accounts!

*update: problem now solved: a file path issue 🙂

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