Research 101: Email

NOTE: This is updated version of an earlier post which includes changes in technology and services.

Email has all but replaced postal mail as the medium of choice for business and personal correspondence. For family researchers, email provides a way to connect and share genealogical data, photos, historical documents and so much more. While more and more research – as well as personal and business information – now resides in our inbox, many of us know little about the email systems we use and the software available to manage them.

What is Email?

Electronic mail, or email, is a way to send digital messages across computer networks and the Internet. It is made up of a network of mail servers which serve as post offices for storing and forwarding email messages. Instead of an envelope with addresses written on them, email uses a header area for this information. In addition to the sender’s and recipient’s addresses, the header also contains control information, a date stamp showing when the message was sent and the subject line of the message. Unlike postal mail, an email message can be sent to multiple recipients. The mail servers look at the information contained in the header and move the message on its way to the correct destination mail server. Once there, it is “placed” in the appropriate user mailbox. The body of the message can contain text, graphics, photos and document attachments.

Choosing a Service

Most of us use the email service provided by our Internet Service Provider (ISP). This is not your only email option and, especially for family research, not the best option. People move and ISPs come and go making your email service – and your address – change as a result. For example, during the time we have lived in this house, our service provider has changed four times. A good option for researchers is one of the large portal services like Google’s Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Microsoft’s Outlook.com. Using one of these services will give you a personal address that will stay with you even when you move or change Internet providers. And, because you are posting your email address in many “public” locations – bulletin boards, online family trees, etc. – which could attract spammers, it’s a good idea to create separate email accounts for your personal mail and your research mail. (More on that later.) If you already use Google or Yahoo tools (Google Reader, Google Books, Flickr, etc.), you already have an email account with one or both of these services. They, along with Microsoft’s Outlook.com, offer free email services and affordable premium upgrades. For example, each Yahoo Mail user has 1TB (that’s 1,024 GB) of space for storing messages and other Yahoo content. Google’s Gmail provides about 7GB of free online storage and reasonable rates for additional space. I’m not sure what Microsoft offers. Choosing a service is mostly a matter of preference. I’ve been a Yahoo fan for years and our Yahoo Mail accounts have served my family very well. I also have a Gmail account and while it’s not my primary account, I use it quite frequently to interface with other Google products.

Email Protocols

Each email provider offers various types of protocols – or methods – for delivering your mail. The most common is webmail. It is a web-based application that allows you to view, manage and create email messages through your web browser. With webmail, you are working with the messages physically located on your service’s mail server. This example shows a Gmail webmail screen. gmail011 Webmail has many advantages – not the least of which is that it’s accessible from anywhere you can access the Internet. The big providers also offer a mobile version of webmail designed for viewing on the small screens of “smart” phones. You messages are stored on the server and backed up regularly. The down side is that you have to be online to access your mail.

The Mail app for Mac supports both POP and IMAP services.

The Mail app for Mac is a desktop email client that supports both POP and IMAP services.

Most email systems offer the POP protocol. This protocol requires a desktop client like Outlook for Windows computers or Mail on Apple computers. Your client app will connect to the email server every so often (while your computer is turned on) to check for new mail. If there is mail, a copy is downloaded to your email client. You can then read and respond to it at your leisure. It’s only necessary to be online when you send or receive messages. To keep a copy of each message on the email server, you will need to turn on those settings in your client application. One big advantage to using a desktop email program is that it can manage more than one email account at a time. If, for example, you have a Yahoo Mail account and a Gmail account, you would have to log into each webmail account separately and check your mail there. With a desktop client, all your email is delivered to one place – your desktop inbox. It’s much easier to manage email using one of these applications. The POP protocol only supports retrieving mail. Another protocol, SMTP, handles sending mail. Your primary concern with either of these protocols is to provide the necessary configuration information when you set up your email client to connect to your mailbox at the mail server. Once that’s done, the client handles the rest. One last protocol, IMAP, is less well-known. Until recently it was used mostly on corporate email systems, but thanks to the growing popularity of portable devices, it’s being put to wider use. Systems using the IMAP protocol maintain their inbox on the mail server. Users must be online to retrieve, read, write and send messages. This is handy for portable devices which have limited memory for message storage, but the protocol does put more demand on the mail server. The IMAP protocol also requires a client app to function, but most email apps support both the POP and IMAP protocols so one app should handle all your email needs. Again the biggest issue for the user is the initial configuration. The client takes over from there.

Mail Clients

As you might expect, there a large number of email clients available. Probably the most popular include Outlook and Outlook Express for Windows, Apple Mail and Thunderbird for Windows, Mac and Linux. You’ll find a more complete directory of mail clients at Open Directory. Don’t be afraid to experiment with several systems to find the one that works best for you.

Managing Email

As more and more aspects of our lives go digital, email is replacing postal mail for both business and personal correspondence. The challenge is how to organize, manage and protect this digital information. Like any other organizational system, there are many options and your system will be one that suits your own lifestyle. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take advantage of your mail system. Learn its features and put them to work in your organizational system. For example, Yahoo Mail provides a folder-based system for organizing archived messages while Gmail uses labels (tags). Both systems have superb search facilities to help you find specific itemsn in your message archives. Create an organizational scheme – whether it be a tag list or folder structure – that works for you.
  • For those who prefer to use a mail client, you may want to keep copies of your “saved” messages on the mail server also. Even if you reach a point where you are paying for storage, it’s still a very cost-efficient off-site backup location. Just remember that when you’re using the POP protocol to deliver email to your desktop client that 1) you’ll have to configure it to keep copies at the server, 2) when you delete a message on your client, you aren’t deleting it on the server and 3) when you send a message from your client, you’ll have a copy in your client’s sent messages folder but not the server’s.
  • Because I use a scanner and desktop document management system to digitize household paperwork and store it on my home network, I “print” a lot of my messages as PDF files and include them in this system. I have a scanner/software combination that creates “searchable PDFs” meaning a computer can read – and search – the scanned text. The document management system provides a means of embedding metadata with the message and organizing it with other related documents.
  • Choose an email client that provides organization, archiving and backup features and learn to use them. You have spent money and effort developing paper filing and organizational systems, why wouldn’t you do the same for your email?

Mail Security

This can, and will be, an article of its own but there are four things you must do religiously.

  1. Create a secure password for your email account (more than 10 characters with a combination of letters, numbers and special characters) and change it frequently.
  2. Be very cautious about using public computers to access your mail. If you must use one, change your password as soon as you can get to a secure system.
  3. Do not download attachments unless they are coming from someone you know and it’s something you are expecting. If you know the sender but weren’t expecting an attachment, check with the person first before opening the attachment.
  4. Backup! Backup! Backup! And, backup some more.

Obviously, this article just hits the highlights of all there is to know about email. Future articles will look at client apps, management ideas and security in more detail. Email has become so important in both our research and personal lives that it deserves a lot more attention.

2 comments for “Research 101: Email

  1. Shannon
    July 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Great article. However, sometimes, emails are not really suited to send large files. When attachments are too large I use Binfer which specializes in large file transfers. It is as easy as email, but without the size limitation. I am able to send hundreds of pictures without reducing their size. The site is http://www.binfer.com

  2. July 30, 2010 at 4:57 am

    Shannon, thanks for the tip on Binfer. I’m not familiar with it, but will definitely check it out.

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