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Email Archiving Stewardship Workshop

In this one-and-a-half-day workshop, email archivists from across the country gathered at Harvard Library to share tools and strategies.


On March 2 and 3, practitioners of email archiving from multiple cultural heritage institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Library of Congress, Stanford University Libraries, and MIT gathered together at Harvard Library for a workshop on email archiving stewardship tools. “Born-digital archiving of any kind involves a lot of technology and skill,” said Wendy Gogel, manager of digital content and projects and leader of the workshop.  

The goals of the workshop were to foster the expanding email archiving community, share updates on current work, identify needs for upcoming work and future directions, and expose the Harvard Library community to the issues involved in email archiving.

Participants found that collaboration is key to tackling the challenges in this field. “Rarely can one institution take on independently all of the work for every format,” Gogel said. By working together on interoperable open-source software, institutions can learn from one another and build workflows around the strengths of the tools being developed—regardless of who developed them. As more people use and contribute to the software over time, the maintenance of the tools becomes sustainable.

The community of email archivists is dedicated to working together to solve problems. Stakeholders agree on essential needs that help set a direction for future work, such as sharing the controlled vocabulary used by various tools, the need for tools to validate sustainable email formats, and the need to develop ways for email archivists to extract, package, and transfer data between tools. Attendees were also able to view tool demos and hear updates on work from Stanford University, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Harvard Library, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Library of Congress, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Artefactual Systems in Vancouver.

Scale and privacy are two of the major challenges for email archivists. Email accounts, whether collected as institutional records or contributed by donors, can dwarf the size of other collections—especially when you include attachments. Privacy is also a concern. Having one’s emails considered for scholarly research is a thorny subject; it may be years before some emails can be released to the public, and even work email may contain sensitive personal information or subject matter in unexpected places—for example, Social Security numbers and credit card information. Even with permission to release emails from a primary account holder, email contains third-party information by the other correspondents. "Email is one of the richest, one of the most revealing, if not the most revealing, of sources currently being generated,” said Christopher Prom, assistant university archivist and associate professor of library administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Franziska Frey, Associate Librarian for Preservation and Digital Imaging, welcomed the group on the first day and opened the public panel presentation on the second day. Sixty-five people attended the panel discussion entitled “Email Archiving in a Curation Lifecycle Context,” which closed out the workshop. Christopher Prom served as moderator and panel speakers included Glynn Edwards, head of the technical services division in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University; Riccardo Ferrante, information technology archivist and digital services program director, Smithsonian Institution Archives; and Wendy Gogel. A WebEx link to the presentation is available.

Participants from across Harvard University included staff from Harvard University Archives, Preservation Services, Harvard University Information Technology Services, Countway Library, and Loeb Design Library, as well as members of the Harvard Library senior management team.

Article written by Harvard Library Communications.
Article published on March 16, 2016.