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

Miten and I outside the National Archives

Miten and I outside the National Archives, looking forward to a day of learning and networking

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) Briefing Day titled Email Preservation: How Hard Can it Be? 

In 2016 the DPC, in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, announced the formation of the Task Force on Technical Approaches to Email Archives to address the challenges presented by email as a critical historical source. The Task Force delineated three core aims:

  1. Articulating the technical framework of email
  2. Suggesting how tools fit within this framework
  3. Beginning to identify missing elements.

The aim of the briefing day was two-fold; to introduce and review the work of the task force thus far in identifying emerging technical frameworks for email management, preservation and access; and to discuss more broadly the technical underpinnings of email preservation and the associated challenges, utilising a series of case studies to illustrate good practice frameworks.

The day started with an introductory talk from Kate Murray (Library of Congress) and Chris Prom (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), who explained the goals of the task force in the context of emails as cultural documents, which are worthy of preservation. They noted that email is a habitat where we live a large portion of our lives, encompassing both work and personal. Furthermore, when looking at the terminology, they acknowledged email is an object, several objects and a verb – and it’s multi-faceted nature all adds to the complexity of preserving email. Ultimately, it was said email is a transactional process whereby a sender transmits a message to a recipient, and from a technical perspective, a protocol that defines a series of commands and responses that operate in a manner like a computer programming language and which permits email processes to occur.

From this standpoint, several challenges of email preservation were highlighted:

  • Capture: building trust with donors, aggregating data, creating workflows and using tools
  • Ensuring authenticity: ensuring no part of the email (envelope, header, and message data etc.) have been tampered with
  • Working at scale: email
  • Addressing security concerns: malicious content leading to vulnerability, confidentiality issues
  • Messages and formats
  • Preserving attachments and linked/networked documents: can these be saved and do we have the resources?
  • Tool interoperability

 

The first case study of the day was presented by Jonathan Pledge from the British Library on “Collecting Email Archives”, who explained born-digital research began at the British Library in 2000, and many of their born-digital archives contain email.  The presentation was particularly interesting as it included their workflow for forensic capture, processing and delivery of email for preservation, providing a current and real life insight into how email archives are being handled. The British Library use Aid4Mail Forensic for their processing and delivery, however, are looking into ePADD as a more holistic approach. ePADD is a software package developed by Standford University which supports archival processes around the appraisal, ingest, processing, discovery and delivery of email archives. Some of the challenges they experienced surrounded the issue of email as often containing personal information. A possible solution would be the redaction of offending material, however they noted this could lead to the loss of meaning, as well as being an extremely time-consuming process.

Next we heard from Anthea Seles (The National Archives) and Greg Falconer (UK Government Cabinet Office) who spoke about email and the record of government. Their presentation focused on the question of where the challenge truly lies for email – suggesting that, opposed to issues of preservation, the challenge lies in capture and presentation. They noted that when coming from a government or institutional perspective, the amount of email created increases hugely, leaving large collections of unstructured records. In terms of capture, this leads to the challenge of identifying  what is of value and what is sensitive. Following this, the major challenge is how to best present emails to users – discoverability and accessibility. This includes issues of remapping existing relationships between unstructured records, and again, the issue of how to deal with linked and networked content.

The third and final case study was given by Michael Hope, from Preservica; an “Active Preservation” technology, providing a suite of (Open Archival Information System) compliant workflows for ingest, data management, storage, access, administration and preservation for digital archives.

Following the case studies, there was a second talk from Kate Murray and Chris Prom on emerging Email Task Force themes and their Technology Roadmap. In June 2017 the task force released a Consultation Report Draft of their findings so far, to enable review, discussion and feedback, and the remainder of their presentation focused on the contents and gaps of the draft report. They talked about three possible preservation approaches:

  • Format Migration: copying data from one type of format to another to ensure continued access
  • Emulation: recreating user experience for both message and attachments in the original context
  • Bit Level Preservation: preservation of the file, as it was submitted (may be appropriate for closed collections)

They noted that there are many tools within the cultural heritage domain designed for interoperability, scalability, preservation and access in mind, yet these are still developing and improving. Finally, we discussed what the possible gaps of the draft report, and issues such as  the authenticity of email collections were raised, as well as a general interest in the differing workflows between institutions. Ultimately, I had a great time at The National Archives for the Email Preservation: How Hard Can it Be? Briefing Day – I learnt a lot about the various challenges of email preservation, and am looking forward to seeing further developments and solutions in the near future.

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