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Archiving Email 2020 Symposium

February 19th, 2020 By Valerie Love

This blog post was co-authored by Jessica Moran, Acting Associate Chief Librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library, and Valerie Love, the Turnbull Library's Senior Digital Archivist.


Email: Then and Now

The first email was sent almost fifty years ago, in 1971, and has been ubiquitous for both personal and business correspondence since at least the mid-1990s. As an important record of communication, email presents great potential to support scholarly research into contemporary society. Emails provide evidence and records of business and government decisions, actions, and activities, and provide insight into contemporary communication and digital life.

Yet organisations and archival repositories of all types—whether public or private, government or cultural—currently face significant challenges in collecting and administering email collections due to concerns about privacy and copyright, the multiplicity of file formats that can be found with email, and the difficulty of processing large, multi-decade archives containing hundreds of thousands of messages.

Information professionals, including librarians, archivists, records managers, and digital preservationists have grappled with how best to manage email. In 2015, the Library of Congress and National Archives and Records Administration jointly held an Archiving Email Symposium in Washington DC. Additionally, two major reports were published in recent years: the Council on Library and Informational Resources report, The Future of Email Archives (2018) and the second edition of the Digital Preservation Coalition’s report Preserving Email (2019). Both of these reports point to the continuing engagement of the profession with the challenges of email and the urgency of our collective desire for tools and direction going forward.

Peter Chan and others standing in front of ATL100 signage.
Peter Chan, Digital Archivist at Stanford University, with ATL Chief Librarian Chris Szekely, and Associate Chief Librarian (acting), Jessica Moran. Photo by Mark Beatty.

Archiving Email 2020

This year marks the centenary for the Alexander Turnbull Library, 100 years since the Library formally opened its doors in June 1920. As we celebrate the first hundred years of the Library, we are also contemplating what the next hundred years will look like, and how we will continue our mission of documenting the lives and activities of people in Aotearoa New Zealand. We know that work will increasingly mean collecting more and more digital collections; one of our key objectives for this centenary is raising awareness around the importance of managing contemporary digital information for future generations.

As part of that we’ll need to know how to preserve and provide access to the email correspondence we’ve already collected, and how best to manage the email we may collect in the future. And we know we can’t do this alone, nor are we the only ones thinking and working on these issues.

View of attendees from back of auditorium.
Attendees of the Email Archiving Symposium 2020. Photo by Mark Beatty.

On 30 January 2020, archivists, digital preservationists, records managers, librarians, academics, and IT specialists from across Aotearoa and Australia came together in Wellington to discuss the particular challenges and opportunities in preserving email. Others around the world, including the Australia, Canada, the United States, the UK, and Ireland, watched remotely via a livestream.

The programme featured talks from people working across the cultural heritage and information management sector, from National and State Archives, special collections libraries and archives, academic researchers, and records managers. The day included robust discussion and sharing of ideas, tools, and workflows. See the full programme here.

The symposium keynote speaker was Peter Chan, Digital Archivist at Stanford University in California, who spoke on how the cultural heritage community can best meet the challenges of email archiving. Peter is also project manager of the ePADD (Email – Process, Appraise, Discover, Deliver) software, and pioneered the use of Access Data Forensic Toolkit to process born-digital archival collections in the United States. Peter was in New Zealand thanks to a Fulbright Specialist award.

Peter Chan speaking from a lecturn.
Peter Chan’s keynote address. Photo by Mark Beatty.
Participants chatting.
Evanthia Samaras of the Public Records Office Victoria (Melbourne) speaking with colleagues. Photo by Mark Beatty.
The first session covered email archives and processes for digital preservation, with talks by Joel Simpson of Archefactual Systems in Canada, Evanthia Samaras of the Public Records Office Victoria (Melbourne), and Jan Hutař of Archives New Zealand, discussing the ways in which their organisations acquire and preserve email archives.

In the second session Dr. Maja Kritalić and Dr Jessee Dieneen from Victoria University of Wellington spoke about email as legacy, personal information management practices around email, and their current research project: Hidden Heritage. Lachlan Glanvile of the University of Melbourne spoke about processing emails in the Germaine Greer collection. Valerie Love and Flora Feltham gave an overview of email appraisal and use of ePADD software at the Alexander Turnbull Library, focusing on the email collections of Dame Judith Binney and Ian Wedde.

The final session focused on case studies relating to email archives and organisational records. Michael Upton of Metataxis New Zealand spoke about email handling practices in central government departments. Amy Joseph and Tine Coenegrachts discussed collecting email newsletters under New Zealand Legal Deposit legislation and the tools and software they use. Finally, Drin Gyuk explored the difference between email archives and IT email backups, and Sean Connelly of Unitec offered a deep dive into preserving email for use in litigation, and in-hold features of Microsoft Exchange.

People sitting around tables and looking towards a person speaking.
Day two of the symposium featured workshops and more informal conversations. Photo by Mark Beatty.

One of the main outcomes of the symposium was bringing together practitioners from different organisations to discuss common issues in managing and preserving email, and to share and learn from each other’s experiences. Discussion points included collecting and managing email at scale; transfer and ingest; standards and preservation formats; software and tools; emulation; recordkeeping strategies; and access and use. We hope that the symposium will inspire participants to continue these conversations as the ways in which we communicate and share information continue to evolve.

We would like to acknowledge and express our thanks to Fulbright New Zealand for their support in bringing Peter Chan to the Library and to New Zealand to share his expertise, and to Te Huinga Mahara ARANZ’s Wellington Branch in supporting this symposium.

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