How Precious Is Your Email?

Today, email has replaced letters as our primary form of written communication. How much of your research efforts and your current family history is in your inbox? More importantly . . . what are you doing to capture and preserve it?

Surprisingly, many of us only know enough about email to log into our service provider’s webmail site and read, send or delete messages. Sure, all the messages you keep are right there on that server whenever you want them, but what happens to all those messages if you change providers or move? Can you take your messages with you? Can you download messages to your computer?

Even worse – what happens to them if something happens to you?

First of all, webmail is one of the least efficient ways to manage your email – especially if you have more than one email account. (You do use a separate email account for your genealogy research, don’t you?) Logging in and out of webmail accounts is tedious and unnecessary. You need an email client application. An email client is a program that is installed on your computer and will connect to all of your email accounts – delivering all those messages to one convenient location.

There are lots of email client apps available. For Apple users – Mac & iOS – there’s the Mail app that comes with your computer or device. Older versions of Windows had Outlook Express but beginning with Windows 8 the default app is Mail. There are lots of commercial and open source email client applications. One very nice open source application is Thunderbird which works on both Apple and Windows desktops.

Why go to all this effort to find, set up and learn how to use an email application? Not only do these apps make managing your mail a lot easier, they also bring your email to your desktop. This is important because it’s the first step in keeping those important messages. The second step is to get them into a readable archive format. Fortunately, many email clients now save their messages as text files and you want to make sure you choose a client app that does. Yes, there’s a lot of code (mostly HTML code) included, but the message is a format that can still be read if the email client that created it is long gone.

Thunderbird users can take advantage of the AutoArchive Reloaded plugin to perform both manual and automated archiving. Most email clients have some sort of message export option. I used this feature recently with the Mail app on my Mac to backup all the messages on the email server before I moved to a new hosting service. Once the move was complete, I imported them back into Mail where they now reside locally. The original export file has been moved to an external hard drive as a backup.

Another option is to save messages into PDF format. That will protect all the formatting, images and other goodies included in todays messages. While Mac users can “print” messages to PDF format, Windows users need to install a PDF printer app (like doPDF). Either way, it can be a tedious and time-consuming chore. Mac users have a very nice alternative called Email Archiver [Mac – $24.99] . This app will crawl through your email accounts creating PDF versions of each message and save them in the location of your choice. You’ll need to do a one-time set up – identifying the accounts and folders you want it to archive and where you want the resulting archive to be located. Then you just tell it to archive and off it goes. The first crawl will take some time but after that, when you run the app it only archives messages that have arrived since the last crawl.  That archive directory is also included in my daily backup routine.

The messages in my archives announce new members of the family and the loss of others. They include photos from special events and share travel stories. There are research notes, conversations to organize holiday get-togethers and even some good gossip. One email account has been mine for more than 15 years so there’s lots of history in those messages. These bits of history are worth the effort necessary to learn, set up and manage both an efficient email processing system and a system to archive them.

How precious is your email?

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