E-Mail and Potential Loss to Future Archives and Scholarship
First Monday

E-Mail and Potential Loss to Future Archives and Scholarship
or The Dog that Didn't Bark

A pattern has emerged in starting presentations on the preservation of electronic materials: Disaster! In 1975, the U.S. Census Bureau discovered that only two computers on earth can still read the 1960 census. The computerized index to a million Vietnam War records was entered on a hybrid motion picture film carrier that cannot be read. The bulk of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's research since 1958 is threatened because of poor storage. These tales are akin to Jorge Luis Borges's short story in which the knowledge of the world is concentrated in one mammoth computer - and the key is lost.

The essential question for the Information Age may well be how to save the electronic memory (Stielow: 333).


Importance of Informal Communication
Current and Developing Transformations in Scholarly Practice
Preservation of Digital Material
Librarian and Archivist Perspective
Business and Legal Perspective
Public Office Perspective
Summary and Recommendations


This paper explores the preservation of electronic correspondence - a small subset of the large and varied area of the preservation of electronic documents. Discussions of preservation in the literature today and briefly reviewed below focus on electronic publications, Web sites and even listservs - all more easily seen as 'public' areas and, we hope, someday susceptible to broad preservation efforts. Personal correspondence among scholars, scientists, and others, unless deliberately retained in one form or another, does not seem to be part of any preservation plan and its preservation receives little attention in the literature. These resources are too often on individual computers or on computers at a scholar's home institution. The premise of this paper is that if electronic correspondence, personal e-mail, is not retained, there will be significant loss to future understanding of the work of today's scholars', to historians' work in general and to our collective memory. "The ability of a culture to survive into the future depends on the richness and acuity of its members' sense of history" (Preserving Digital Information, Introduction) The problem is not only a subset of the problem of digital preservation in general but also a subset of technology's future impact on scholarly research methods. Unfortunately, the subject seems [1] not to have risen to a level of importance for historians, biographers, librarians and archivists [2].


Personal correspondence has long served as a source of historical information - unique documentation of activities of individuals. One need only casually peruse any library catalog today to see vast numbers of books based on 'the letters of' or 'the correspondence of' to appreciate our dependency on this medium. Beginning as early as the ancient times when writing had been a practice for barely 500 years we see the power of letters: Pliny the Younger's letters describing the eruption of Vesuvius in which his uncle, Pliny the Elder, admiral of the Mediterranean fleet based in Misenum, died in August 79 B.C.; letters of Cicero from the same period; and those of St. Paul a century later.

Without any attempt to cover the almost two millennia following these well-know letters, I nonetheless quote Lyman, "The scientific letters which were circulated among the Fellows of the Royal Society were the prototype for scientific journals, which in their turn sustained scholarly disciplines..." (Lyman: 8). I note as well how personal correspondence from the 19th century has helped us understand that period of fast-developing scientific theories, the two most important of which may well be Darwin's theory presented in The Origin of Species and the simultaneous (1859) but separate acceptance by scientists of the proof that the earth and mankind were far older than the biblically allotted 6,000 years (see, for example, Grayson). And in consideration of the beginnings of computing in the early 19th century, an article in Scientific American on the collaboration of Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and Charles Babbage, indicates that "all that historians know regarding Ada's work comes from correspondence between Ada and Babbage [emphasis mine], Babbage's notebooks, and Ada's notes themselves." One letter especially makes clear that the idea of including a program that computed Bernoulli numbers was Ada's idea (Kim and Toole: 80).

The 19th century, in fact, was very advanced in the transmission of correspondence. Within greater London and other continental cities, postal deliveries were as frequent as six times a day (Robinson: 198). Pneumatic tubes carried messages (pneus) around major cities in Europe and even North and South America: London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Berlin, Paris, Milan, Rome, Naples, Vienna, Marseilles, and Rio de Janeiro to name a few cities with these installations. "One of the most ambitious systems was installed in New York, linking many of the post offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The system was large enough to carry small parcels [for example, should one have chosen, draft scholarly papers], and on one occasion a cat was even sent from one post office to another along the tubes" (Standage: 97). And finally, in the second half of the 19th century the telegraph added to the speed with which ideas could be shared. This patchwork structure of telegraph networks, postal systems, pneumatic tubes, submarine cables and messengers created, in effect, a Victorian Internet (Standage: 101). In all cases, however, the message was transmitted ultimately by paper record which has a better chance of surviving a century than digital records today have of surviving a few decades.

In the 20th century the correspondence of scientists, scholars and politicians [3] has been used to illuminate and understand events. I mention only the publication of the correspondence of Ilse Rosenthal-Schneider with Albert Einstein, Max von Laue and Max Planck, men with whom she studied and corresponded on the subject of the philosophical problems of central importance to science. As Arthur I. Miller indicates in the forward to Reality and Scientific Truth "her book enlarges our knowledge of these men as scientists and as human beings. ... The letters and her commentary are stimulating discussions of ideas generated by scientists who refused to acknowledge barriers between scientists and philosophers" (Rosenthal-Schneider: 9).

Where will our understandings of today and, more critically, the next century be, if this rich source of information is no longer available? Scientists, scholars, historians and others are finding electronic mail a very useful medium for the informal exchange of ideas. Before considering scholarly communication and changes in it brought about by technical innovations, let's turn to two opposing current thoughts on e-mail use to set the context.

In the first, Anne Eisenberg, writing in 1994, discusses the new epistolary age in which "scientists the world over have suddenly found themselves productively engaged in a task they once spent their lives avoiding - writing, any kind of writing, but particularly letter writing." She acknowledges that the style of previous generations of letter-writers is lacking but rightly, I believe, signals the quickly developing use of this new medium of information exchange. Stanley Solomon writing in 1998 recognizes that e-mail will win out over both alternatives of telephone and snail mail but sees not "the slightest hint of literary resurgence in e-mail correspondence" (Solomon: 320). "E-mail is inherently anti-contemplative" suggesting that "even in its métier, communicating information, computer correspondence persistently exemplifies another deficiency: the lack of development of information into a reasonable argument" (Solomon: 321). These two positions suggest a lack of consensus on the importance of e-mail as a new vehicle of communication, not to mention the importance (and even consideration) of the preservation of this means of communication. The following discussions highlight this ambivalence as well as the lack of attention to preservation in current studies of scholarly communication and archival concerns. But first, let's consider the possible importance of e-mail as a new subset of informal scholarly communication.

Importance of Informal Communication

From the late 1960s and early 1970s comes a number of studies on the importance of informal communication among scholars (see Montgomery, 1967 and Nelson and Pollack, 1970). In the first citation are collected papers from a symposium on The Foundations of Access to Knowledge, two papers of which specifically address informal communication (Garvey and Griffith, and Menzel). Garvey and Griffith examine data from the Project in Scientific Information Exchange (PSIE) in an attempt to understand what needs are being served by informal communication, and what can be done about giving informal communication certain of the advantages (such as accessibility and permanence) of formal communication without destroying its function for an active researcher. They list a number of characteristics of informal communication, two of which are relevant to this consideration of e-mail - open-endedness and critical feedback - and they use an analogy to art which is especially pertinent:

The essence of an artist's work often appears in his informal sketches before he formalizes it on canvas. The history of art is replete with examples of such very early appearances of that style which distinguishes an artist's work from the art of the past. Furthermore, even after the formal canvases have been produced, the artist's style (i.e., what he is trying to say) may be more abundantly apparent in his early preliminary work sketches. The "art" in a scientist's research, a real feeling for what he is personally trying to do, is often communicated to small groups - in seminars, through correspondence, bull sessions, etc. (Garvey and Griffith: 135)

Garvey and Griffith indicate that "the stimulating, fascinating and encouraging aspects of informal communication in relation to research are probably more important than they have been considered" (Garvey and Griffith: 136).

In this same volume, Menzel discusses the advantages and formal analogues of informal communication in science. He opens by stating baldly that "[t]here is no longer any doubt about the great role played by informal, person-to-person communication in the experiences of scientific investigators - often in ways that effect their work quite vitally" (Menzel:153). He hastens to assure us that formal and informal communication are complementary and should not be thought of as alternatives, an important point for us to remember as we consider the role of e-mail and the necessity for its preservation. His paper considers specifically why interpersonal communication should play such a great role in science, "what, in other words, has interpersonal communication got that the written word and other formal communication means of science communication haven't got?" (Menzel: 154) He discusses a number of functions: promptness; selective switching (routing scientific news to the scientists to whom it is relevant); screening, evaluation and synthesis (colleagues deliver information rather than documents); and instantaneous feedback. And Menzel concludes with a statement which seems prescient and worth keeping in mind:

The extent to which these functions are the exclusive province of interpersonal communication also changes in the course of time, with changes in the structure of scientific publics and with developments in the science information apparatus. ... it is doubtful that these favorable circumstances will ever apply broadly enough to do away with the essential role played by interpersonal communication (Menzel: 162).

Griffith and Miller, in Communication Among Scientists and Engineers, further considered the data from the Project in Scientific Information Exchange. They discuss several considerations about the importance of informal communication, including the reported incidence and rated importance of informal discussion at scientific meetings as well as

patterns in the work of individual researchers ("First, before I ever go to the Library, I speak with Joe who follows that literature"); and the identification of special roles that particular individuals play in formal communication (Griffith and Miller: 126)

A further consideration of theirs was the concept of the 'new invisible college', an idea earlier formulated by Price:

In a highly influential footnote in Science Since Babylon, Price referred to the 'new invisible college' of scientists who "substitute personal contact for formal communication among those who were really getting on with the job" (p.99), suggesting the image of a peripatetic gaggle of active scientists. ... The concept of an invisible college has attracted more popular attention than any other in the study of scientific communication, and was immediately adopted into folklore (Griffith and Miller: 126).

The authors conclude their paper with a caveat more important in the world of informal e-mail exchanges than the prior world:

The free exchange of information about unpublished results and ideas within the group requires powerful norms protecting the individual's priority of discovery (Griffith and Miller: 140).

Current and Developing Transformations in Scholarly Practice

The work in the 1960s and 1970s considered informal scholarly communication in general. More recently, discussion has been opened on scholarly communication in the presence of electronic mail and other Internet resources. It is worthwhile invoking Marshall McLuhan, as Locke does, reminding us that

[T]he nature and significance of a tool is generally not truly understood, even by the inventor, until it has been used for some time. Then and only then, can it be known what the tool has become, therefore what it is. This basic principle has applied at least from the invention of the printing press and electricity to the telephone and the airplane (Locke: 8).

The recent discussions cover changes in scientific communication and electronic research (Barger, Bridges and Clement [4], Chu, Foertsch, Komsky, Locke, McCune, Nantz and Wilkins, Rudy, Turi, and Walsh and Bayma). Rudy, in an article published in 1996, reviews the literature on e-mail research, directing the review primarily toward "those not working in the field who nonetheless wish to be aware of advances in it." Most of the article concerns the use of e-mail and its effects on those using it. Nowhere is there a discussion of the issue of preservation of it. Williams, in a recent article in which he attempts to predict e-mail developments and subsequent issues in organizations, offers useful brief reviews and bibliographies of e-mail in use and e-mail developments. The focus here is on e-mail overload. For the most part, all discussions consider the core tools of e-mail and electronic networks (e-bulletin boards, e-conferencing, e-journals, listservs and so forth) as well as faculty use of e-mail although the latter studies are, for the most part, university-centric rather than discipline-centric. That is, these studies of academic e-mail to date consider how this information exchange is used within an institution rather than with colleagues around the world. Walsh and Bayma break this mold, exploring the incorporation of electronic communication in science with interviews of 67 scientists in four fields. They found that use differs substantially by field and is based on the different work and work organization in each field. Mathematicians were found to be especially heavy users of e-mail.

I just sent a manuscript a few minutes ago to a colleague to get his reaction. I'm writing a paper with X at the University of Michigan. We communicate via E-mail. "How do you do this?" "This is what I do." It is a critical component of my work. I can't remember what it was like before. ... I use it to keep in touch with research. Gossip. Ask a question about literature. Ask questions of collaborators (Walsh and Bayma:389).

That there is an acceptance of the value of e-mail in scholarly communication, despite Solomon, is clear; that there is an understanding of the importance of preserving these exchanges is most unclear, suggesting that there is still work for sociologists and archivists to do in this area. Peter Layman reminds us that

[T]he questions concerning technological innovation might now be reconstituted as a kind of sociology of knowledge: what kind of academic communities first created print genres, and was in turn sustained by them? What kind of community is now creating digital genres, and is in turn sustained by them? And what is the relationship between the two, now and in the future? (Layman: 7)

Layman also discusses the Brown and Duguid essay which suggests that documents should not be understood solely as containers for content, but as catalysts for the creation of a sense of community, suggesting that today's virtual communities are resources for social participation and community. Electronic communications of any sort (e-mail, listservs, discussion groups) create these virtual communities or invisible colleges and it is the preservation of the personal correspondence in these communities, already deemed important by previous researchers, which is the focus of this paper and yet not acknowledged in any of these discussions.

Turning briefly to recent considerations of the study of information exchange in general, I commend Haythornwaite's studies (1996 and 1998) although her work is not directed at academic or scholarly communication. A recent book discusses the transformation of scientific communication (Crawford, Hurd and Weller), highlighting again the importance of informal communication (regardless of its nature), referencing the concept of the invisible college as well as the Garvey/Griffith model, and echoing Garvey and Griffith's parallel to an artist's informal sketches:

At the beginning of a research project, informal communication is important to scientists who are developing methodologies and refining hypotheses. Colleagues at invisible colleges may be queried for details on construction of experimental apparatus or for data on related objects of study. In an earlier time, telephone calls and visits to other laboratories as well as conference interactions provided opportunities for communication. The ready availability of e-mail now makes such direct communication even easier, and likely faster and less costly, than a telephone call or a visit (Hurd, Weller and Crawford: 99).

The developments in scholarly work patterns are clearly changing the nature of scholarly communication. Three recent articles reference how access to the digital environment has changed scholarship. In April 1998, the Chronicle of Higher Education related the efforts of Dr. Paul Ginsbarg to put physics online, commenting that "Some scientists believe that electronic systems like Dr. Ginsbarg's are actually changing the scientific process itself." Around the same time, Nancy Ross-Flanigan, in "The Virtues (and Vices) of Virtual Colleagues", discussed the development of collaboratories, "a center without walls" in which users can "perform their research without regard to geographical location. Accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources [and] accessing information in digital libraries" (Ross-Flanigan: 54). Just recently Kiernan in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that "Internet-based 'Collaboratories' Help Scientists Work Together." These three articles make clear the vast changes in scientific and collaborative research that have occurred in the last few years and serve to underscore the changing nature of research and collaboration among scholars. That their communication venue has/will also change must be clear and as e-mail becomes one of the main means of communication - located on the spectrum between telephone calls and formal papers (with snail mail letters, I believe, far less likely) - these reports serve to highlight the rapidly changing world of scholarly communication.

But it is an article from 1993 which crystallizes the need for consideration of the preservation of electronic correspondence. In this brief report, Mary Peterson discusses the e-mail correspondence serendipitiously commenced between Gerald Phillips, a retired professor of speech communication in Philadelphia, and Dr. Robert Werman, former professor of psychiatry at the University of Indiana Medical School, then professor of neurophysiology at the University of Jerusalem, who sent e-mail dispatches from Israel during the Gulf War. Their correspondence forms an interesting expression of the times, published as Notes from a Sealed Room, a full text on the war and its consequences and the first product of their electronic collaboration. Their second book, Cardiyakking: A Heart to Heart Talk About Heart Disease, was described as "an example of the kind of talk that could develop if doctors and patients had limitless time in which to talk with each other" (Peterson: 10). Since their first contact they have corresponded daily, and as of Peterson's article, accumulated 18 megabytes of talk. And at the time of this article, a graduate student, an oral historian, had made their correspondence the topic of his dissertation. As reported in 1993, Phillips and Werman were developing a book on their electronic friendship. While working on their second book, they report that the "primary method of sending material was by e-mail [emphasis mine]; FTP was generally only used when we wanted to confirm layouts." Phillips has a huge storage on the mainframe, he reported, which he periodically downloads to floppies. But what will there be if we scholars are not prescient enough to save correspondence or fail to have the resources to do so? And will there be hardware and software to read these floppies 100 years from now?

When we consider the relationship between informal communication and a finished scholarly work, Nunberg's point that "technology tends to erase distinctions between the separate processes of creation, reproduction and distribution that characterized the classical industrial mode of print commodities" (Nunberg: 21) is especially apt. The melding of the once different processes of creation, reproduction and distribution, I suggest, makes preservation of e-mail communication even more important as a trail of the development of ideas.

Preservation of Digital Material

"Today we can only imagine the content of and the audience reaction to the lost plays of Aeschylus. We do not know how Mozart sounded when performing his own music. We can have no direct experience of David Garrick on stage. Nor can we fully appreciate the power of Patrick Henry's oratory. Will future generations be able to encounter a Mikhail Baryshnikov ballet, a Barbara Jordan speech, a Walter Cronkite newscast, or an Ella Fitzgerald scat on an Ellington tune? (Preserving Digital Information, Introduction)

The Report of the Task Force on Archiving Digital Information, quoted above, and commissioned by The Commission on Preservation and Access and The Research Libraries Group, Inc., discusses the fragility of cultural memory in the digital age, stating that "our ability and commitment as a society to preserve our cultural memory are far from secure." While the first e-mail message was sent in 1964 from "either the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Carnegie Institute of Technology or Cambridge University," the message did not survive [5] and "so there is no documentary record to determine which group sent the pathbreaking message." There are many more stories of digital records not preserved, indicating that from the outset attention was not paid to the preservation of the origins and early instances of this new method of communication.

Librarian and Archivist Perspective

There are numerous discussions today about the preservation of digital documents (see Brichford and Maher, Day, Graham, Michelson and Rothenberg, Smith, Stille, Tennant, Waters). Day, from the U.K. Office of Library and Information Networking (UKOLN), presents an extensive online bibliography on the preservation of digital information which is updated periodically (most recently May 9, 1999). Stille contrasts the information available today with our ability to preserve it:

Potentially, the information age appears to offer the historian a Holy Grail of infinite memory and of instant, permanent access to virtually limitless amounts of information. ... Paul Conway, a librarian at Yale University, has created a graph going back to ancient Mesopotamia which shows that, while the quantity of information being saved has increased exponentially, the durability of media has decreased almost as rapidly. The clay tablets that record the laws of ancient Sumer are still on display in museums around the world, and many medieval illuminated manuscripts written on animal parchment still look as if they were painted or copied yesterday, whereas modern books printed on acidic paper as recently as the nineteen-eighties are already turning to dust. ... And the latest generation of digital storage is considered to be safe for only ten years (Stille: 41).

Tennant's short piece reviews the basics and offers a very useful Link List, Web resources on this subject. His opening paragraph tells the story:

Digital Libraries are sitting on a time bomb. Yes, libraries are already familiar with deteriorating materials, but digital libraries face an even graver threat. While digital library materials do not decay like old paper, they nonetheless may become unstable. And digital librarians have learned that solutions must be different as well (Tennant: 30).

Waters acknowledges that "archiving is central to a knowledge-based economy" (Waters: 1) and that "the emerging knowledge economy cannot survive and will not lead to democratic outcomes without a provision for the archiving function" (Waters: 4). Graham writes that "electronic documents, by contrast, force our preservation considerations to divide into two: the preservation of the objects, as before, but also the preservation of the information contained in those objects and which is now so easily separable from them" (Graham: 1). These comments in turn can take us down the road of discussions of, first, the physical preservation and longevity of digitized objects (short by the standards of even acid-based paper not to mention cuneiform), and, second, the need for migration of digital records and the complexities and difficulties inherent in this process. Brichford and Maher weigh in with the opinion that "preservation is more a matter of access to information than it is a question of survival of any physical information storage media" (Brichford and Maher: 704). They bring out a point critical to archivists: "With electronic data, if one simply waits for user communities to emerge, the means to convert data are likely to be long since unavailable by the time that the next cycle of users emerges and new questions for old texts are posed" (Brichford and Maher: 708). In short, to simply store the document on its original medium is woefully inadequate. Cox, in an article focussed on the U.S. National Historical Publications and Records Commission's shifting priorities from documentary editions to research and development in electronic record keeping systems, gives a succinct argument for why the preservation of electronic records must be a priority over documentary editions:

Most of the records represented by the documentary editions are not immediately threatened. Left alone and provided moderate storage the papers of the Jeffersons and Washingtons will be here next year, the next decade, and most likely the next century. This is not the case with records produced in the modern electronic systems (Cox: 22-23).

And in a long article on scholarly communication and technology, Michelson and Rothenberg indicate that "E-mail exchanges are growing at an astonishing rate, and currently constitute approximately half the traffic on research and education networks" (Michelson and Rothenberg:262). Yet they and all other authors cited, with the exception of Cox and Stille, do not address the issue of the preservation of this informal, but critically important form of scholarly communication. Stille, maintaining that the era of big-government data banks is just beginning, presents an important point made by Thibodeau, director of electronic-records programs at the Archives, who maintains that "Armstrong and others disregard the immense technological difficulties in trying to recover E-mail from thousands of different computers" (Stille: 44). According to Stille, "the problem is that most E-mail programs were not written with long-term storage in mind. So, in the current state of technology, the Archives computers must treat each individual E-mail message as a separate file, which has to be opened and closed in order to be copied from one tape to another" (Stille: 44). Finally, Stille relates the head of the Department of Special Media Preservation Mayn's belief that

[B]ecause much of this material will eventually deteriorate, the choice of what to keep will be made by default. "We will keep those things that researchers happen to have requested and that consequently get copied onto new media" (Stille: 44).

Mayn's comments, while directed specifically at film, can be made just as easily for all digital material.

Cox brings us back to the early days of the U.S., concluding that

[W]e could also expect that with incessant letter writers like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams that both could be expected to have used electronic mail technology, the best known feature of the internet, to correspond with friends and colleagues around the world (Cox: 23) ...

It was Jefferson, after all, who worked trying to perfect a portable version of the "polygraph" in the early nineteenth century to make his correspondence more productive. I can see him now learning to use an electronic mail system, while worrying about whether his papers would be preserved for posterity. I can see him wanting to talk with Bill Gates about this. But, would we be able to help him? (Cox: 27)

Business and Legal Perspective

Interestingly, in the almost absence of any discussion of the need to preserve informal, personal scholarly communication, there is an awareness, from the business and legal community perspective, of the dangers of keeping available just such discussions. See, for example, Barker, Karcher and Meade who argue that "a document retention policy is key to avoiding litigation nightmares" (Barker, Karcher and Meade: 49) and that today's technology refutes the argument of a defendant that "a search for specific documents relating to a case would be too cumbersome or expensive to mount" (Barker, Karcher and Meade: 50). They argue that "any document retention plan should address three basic areas: the categorization of the documents, the retention period for those various classes, and document destruction and control procedures" (Barker, Karcher and Meade: 50) [6] Most recently, we are well aware of the potentially damaging effects of e-mail in the Microsoft antitrust trial. An article discussing the end of testimony in the case refers to the "lively E-mail flavored with capitalist aggression" and indicates that the "Government got in a parting shot by introducing an E-mail from William H. Gates, Microsoft's chairman, that appeared to contradict a central defense contention..." (Lohr: A1). A concurrent article, "Gates Memo Deals a Blow to Microsoft," discusses the issue in detail (Brinkley: C4). Both articles use words that underscore the legal community's desire to avoid litigation nightmares by eliminating e-mail. McCune's comments in 1997 say it all - "Old e-mail can quickly become toxic waste" (McCune: 11).

Public Office Perspective

Another aspect is presented in a recent (April 1, 1999) article in the New York Times, "Behind Closed E-Mail: Officials Come Under Scrutiny" where we learn that requests to read all the e-mail a public official has received is a "problem that the Legislature has never recognized" (Kelley: G1). Further "how do those e-mail exchanges differ from phone calls or voice-mail messages or, for that matter, letters carried through rain and sleet and snow?" This article appends a side-box which suggests that

"[T]here is no assurance that electronic records will be accessible down the road. Five years from now, people may not be able to read those records," said Harry A. Hammitt, editor and publisher of The Access Reports on information policy issues (Kelley: G9)

Cox discusses the role of the National Archives who were prepared, as Reagan left office, to

allow thousands of electronic mail messages to be dumped because they did not constitute "records." The National Security Archive, a public citizen action group using Freedom of Information Act requests to gain access to classified federal records, began to lead an effort to stop this, thus beginning a long still ongoing court case about the preservation of these records (Cox: 24).

He continues, relating Tom Blanton's assertion that none of this would have been necessary "if the National Archives & Records Administration had simply done its job under the law, holding even the White House accountable."

How are we to reconcile these seemingly divergent positions? On the one hand, the rich history of scholarship has made clear the critical nature of informal communication in the development of new ideas as well as in deciphering and documenting the development of past scientific and scholarly accomplishments and historical events. And yet, on the other hand, the most frequent voices in print argue for the protection of these messages from others' eyes by specific destruction policies at the same time that the National Archives seems unwilling to take up the case for preservation. Once again, 'seems' is a critical word. Although to date cited only once in a published document, from NARA's Web site, information on new projects shows very positive progress, as the following discussion shows.

A June, 1999 document submitted to NARA from the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), entitled "Collection-Based Long-Term Preservation," discusses its goal "to preserve digital information for at least 400 years. This report examines the technical issues that must be addressed, evaluates possible implementations, assigns metrics for success, and examines business models for managing a collection-based persistent archive. The applicability of the results is demonstrated by examination of nine different data collections, provided by the USPTO and other federal/state agencies." One of the data sets is e-mail postings the goal of whose examination was the demonstration of "Preservation strategy and sustained access to a 1 million record collection and [a] look at the potential for upward scalability." The findings suggest that "based on the ability to ingest and archive the 1-million record collection in 16 hours, it should be possible to accession 40 million records in a month, using a single workstation" (See Reagan Moore et al.). This work has been reported as well in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a report whose emphasis is on the tens of millions of e-mail messages from Clinton's administration when he leaves office, the departure point for SDSC's efforts (See Olsen).

A very recent proposal from SDSC to NHPRC, also available through NARA's Web site, states as its purpose and goals to

  • conduct research on long-term preservation of and access to software-dependent data objects, and

  • develop prototypes that will lead to the creation of useful tools for archivists to preserve and provide access to electronic records over the long-term (See San Diego Supercomputer Center Proposal to NHPRC).

The proposal indicates that it specifically addresses the third goal of the NHPRC Strategic Plan:

The NHPRC will enable the nation's archivists, record managers, and documentary editors to overcome the obstacles and take advantage of the opportunities posed by electronic technologies by continuing to provide leadership in funding research-and-development on appraising, preserving, disseminating and providing access to important documentary sources in electronic forms.

A third recent announcement (see US-InterPares) indicates another funded initiative:

A newly funded research project will tackle one of the most critical global issues of the digital age - the long-term preservation of vital organizational records and critical research data created or maintained in electronic systems. ...

The project, known as the InterPARES Project (International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems), will investigate and develop theories, methodologies, and prototype systems required for the permanent preservation of authentic electronic records. It will also develop model policies, strategies, and standards to ensure preservation of the authenticity of those records.

"This project is distinctive in that it brings together archivists, records managers, preservation experts, computer scientists from around the world to deal with what is a worldwide problem. If our project is successful, people who need to access information from records created electronically in the 1990s will have a guarantee that those important electronic records have survived and are authentic." Eppard said.

These documents show that work is clearly underway to begin to address the issues presented above. Determining the appropriate technologies to preserve and provide access to e-mail is a fundamental step. Yet, without recommendations and guidelines on what to preserve, how to disseminate and how to make accessible, these efforts will not meet future scholars' needs. Critical questions which archivists and others will need to address include

  • should all organizations which provide e-mail service and storage participate in the plans?

  • how can an individual organize all his/her e-mail so that one archive is given access, in a parallel fashion to how bequeathing personal papers is handled today?

The current discussions outlined above show that there is much to be done but the very recent information shows promising signs that it is underway.

Summary and Recommendations

This paper has presented and discussed

  1. The long history of personal correspondence assisting scholars decades if not centuries later in the understanding of events and times.
  2. The definitive body of work testifying to the value and importance of informal communication among scholars.
  3. The growing discussion and recognition of the changing nature of scholarly work and communication due to technology.
  4. The lack of attention to the problem of preservation of the subset of scholarly communication which is e-mail.

Unless future generations are to be bereft of access to the full range of resources which document how scholars communicated and developed ideas, and which are available to provide evidence and force accountability if called for, I make the following recommendations.

  1. Scholars should be urged to keep paper records of all e-mail correspondence. While the retention of correspondence in paper form is marginally acceptable today (if we are prepared to lose any active links in e-mail), such preservation nonetheless eliminates the possibilities of future scanning and indexing of vast blocks of e-mail correspondence between prolific scholars, an example of which is already documented. Paper form preservation clearly eliminates the full record and as more e-mail products provide direct hotlinks this loss will increase.

  2. Archivists should develop standards and recommendations for preservation of this form of informal communication, and librarians and archivists together should actively seek to alert scholars to the dangers that future research (and even their own) will face should these documents no longer be available.

  3. Vendors such as Smart Storage should be urged to develop products for use on a personal level which scholars could purchase and implement.

  4. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission should continue and increase funding for research in the preservation of electronic records, including e-mail correspondence.

  5. All current efforts investigating the preservation of electronic records should make explicit the inclusion of personal e-mail preservation in their efforts, separate from web sites and listservs.

  6. As called for by Blanton in 1995, and echoed by Cox in 1997, the National Archives should be reinvented, to be a vigorous information watchdog, rather than fulfilling the role as the United States' attic.

About the Author

Susan S. Lukesh has been Associate Provost for Planning and Budget at Hofstra University since 1988. Since January 1997 she has also served as Interim Dean of Library Services. She is a practising archaeologist whose work on the island of Ustica continues 25 years of collaborative excavation with Brown University in Southern Italy and Sicily. She has a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology and is currently enrolled in an MLS program at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science, Long Island University.
E-mail: Susan.Lukesh@hofstra.edu


1. As a practising archaeologist, I am very aware of both the importance of negative evidence (that is, what isn't there) and the demonstration of the certainty with which we know it is, in fact, not there. My use of the word 'seems' is based on a detailed review of the literature; much of the literature consulted is presented in the Bibliography at the end of the article. Naturally, I am interested in learning of literature I have overlooked. Nonetheless, the apparent hole in the literature is a good example of negative evidence - a discussion of the preservation of e-mail says a lot in its absence. From a mystery lover's point of view, it is "the dog that didn't bark."

2. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Robert Darnton discusses the availability of letters and archives in cyberspace and suggests that we [scholars] must take charge of the Internet. There is, however, no mention of the possible loss to future archives if this material is not preserved.

3. A recent court ruling that the U.S. government's e-mail are federal records and must be archived in their original form has prompted the development of software by a company called Smart Storage to archive e-mail on CD-ROM (See Anonymous, Internet Week). For a mid-1990s discussion of the need for ensuring the rich historical record of modern White House decision-making, see James D. Lewis.

4. Bridges and Clement, "Crossing the Threshold of Rocket Mail," share the wonderful story of the 30 pieces of rocket mail which flew aboard a 7-foot rocket launched from McAllen, Texas into nearby Mexico in 1936. "Still enthusiastic about rocket mail a quarter of a century later, in 1959, U.S. Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield predicted that "[before humans stand on the moon] your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India or Australia by guided missiles... . We stand on the threshold of rocket mail." The Internet and e-mail have very effectively, and much more safely, replaced the need for rocket delivery of mail (109).

5. Yet we know that Alexander Graham Bell produced the first intelligible telephonic transmission to his assistant on June 5, 1875, and that a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum was the first item purchased using bar-code scanning technology just six weeks after the technology's's introduction on May 5, 1974.

6. In my own institution, e-mail is retained for up to one year; to keep it beyond that, a conscious decision and act must be made to move it into archives. Should we not check routinely, we lose the availability of the material for future research and scholarship.


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Contents Index

Copyright © 1999, First Monday

E-Mail and Potential Loss to Future Archives and Scholarship or The Dog that Didn't Bark by Susan S. Lukesh
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_9/lukesh/index.html

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