Email Preservation: How Hard Can it Be? DPC Briefing Day

On Thursday 6th July 2017 I attended the Digital Preservation Coalition briefing day in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on email preservation titled ‘Email preservation: how hard can it be?’. It was hosted at The National archives (TNA), this was my first visit to TNA and it was fantastic. I didn’t know a great deal about email preservation prior to this and so I was really looking forward to learning about this topic.

The National Archives, Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9786613

The aim of the day was to engage in discussion about some of the current tools, technologies and thoughts on email preservation. It was orientated around the ‘Task Force on Technical Approaches to Email Preservation’ report that is currently in its draft phase. We also got to hear about interesting case studies from the British library, TNA and Preservica, each presenting their own unique experiences in relation to this topic. It was a great opportunity to learn about this area and hear from the co-chairs (Kate Murray and Christopher Prom) and the audience about their thoughts on the current situation and possible future directions.

We heard from Jonathan Pledge from British library (BL). He told us about the forensic capture expertise gained by the BL and using EnCase to capture email data from hard drives, CD’s and USB’s. We also got an insight into how they are deciding which email archive tool to use. Aid4mail fits better with their work flow however ePADD with its holistic approach was something they were considering. During their ingest they separate the emails from the attachments. They found that after the time consuming process of removing emails that would violate the data protection laws, there was very little usable content left, as often, entire threads would have to be redacted due to one message. This is not the most effective use of an archivist time and is something they are working to address.

We also heard from Anthea Seles who works with government collections at TNA. We learnt that from their research, they discovered that approximately 1TB of data in an organisations own electronic document and records management system is linked to 10TB of related data in shared drives. Her focus was on discovery and data analytics. For example, a way to increase efficiency and focus the attention of the curator on was to batch email. If an email was sent from TNA to a vast number of people, then there is a high chance that the content does not contain sensitive information. However, if it was sent to a high profile individual, then there is a higher chance that it will contain sensitive information, so the curator can focus their attention on those messages.

Hearing from Preservica was interesting as it gave an insight into the commercial side of email archiving. In their view, preservation was not an issue. For them, their attention was focused on addressing issues such as identifying duplicates/unwanted emails efficiently. Developing tools for performing whole collection email analysis and, interestingly, how to solve the problem of acquiring emails via a continuous transfer.

Emails are not going to be the main form of communication forever (the rise in the popularity of instant messaging is clear to see) however we learnt that we are still expecting growth in its use for the near future.

One of the main issues that was bought up was the potential size of future email archives and the issue that come with effective and efficient appraisal. What is large in academic terms, e.g. 100 000 emails, is not in government. The figure of over 200 million emails at the George W. Bush presidential library is a phenomenal amount and the Obama administrations is estimated at 300 million. This requires smart solutions and we learnt how the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning could help.

Continuous active learning was highlighted to improve searches. An example of searching for Miami dolphins was given. The Miami Dolphins are an American football team however someone might so be looking for information about dolphins in Miami. Initially the computer would present different search results and the user would choose which the more relevant result is, over time it will learn what it is the user is looking for in cases where searches can be ambiguous.

Another issue that was highlighted was, how do you make sure that you have searched the correct person? How do you avoid false positives? At TNA the ‘Traces Through Time’ project aimed to do that, initially with World War One records. This technology, using big data analytics can be used with email archives. There is also work on mining the email signature as a way to better determine ownership of the message.

User experience was also discussed. Emulation is an area of particular interest. The positive of this is that it recreates how the original user would have experienced the emails. However this technology is still being developed. Bit level preservation is a solution to make sure we capture and preserve the data now. This prevents loss of the archive and allows the information and value to be extracted in the future once the tools have been developed.

It was interesting to hear how policy could affect how easy it would be to acquire email archives. The new General Data Protection Regulation that will come into effect in May 2018 will mean anyone in breach of this will suffer worse penalties, up to 4% of annual worldwide turnover. This means that companies may air on the side of caution with regards to keeping personal data such as emails.

Whilst the email protocols are well standardised, allowing emails to be sent from one client to another (e.g. AOL account from early 1990’s to Gmail of now) the acquisition of them are not. When archivists get hold of email archives, they are left with the remnants of whatever the email client/user has done to it. This means metadata may have been added or removed and formats can vary. This adds a further level of complexity to the whole process

The day was thoroughly enjoyable. It was a fantastic way to learn about archiving emails. As emails are now one of the main methods of communication, for government, large organisations and personal use, it is important that we develop the tools, techniques and policies for email preservation. To answer the question ‘how hard can it be?’ I’d say very. Emails are not simple objects of text, they are highly complex entities comprising of attachments, links and embedded content. The solution will be complex but there is a great community of researchers, individuals, libraries and commercial entities working on solving this problem. I look forward to hearing the update in January 2018 when the task force is due to meet again.

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