Collecting Email at the Harvard University Archives

The Harvard University Archives collects and stores email as one means to document the current history of Harvard University.  To provide future access to the words, thoughts, and actions of many individuals in the late 20th century and beyond, the Archives collects email with content that fits within its collecting scope.  The Harvard Library stores and preserves email via its Digital Repository Service (DRS).

While the Archives considers it vital to collect email, it is not collected as a type of record but, rather, according to the significance of its content. Email is a means to transmit a variety of types of records or other information that the Archives seeks to add to its holdings.  Commonly, email is considered a form of correspondence.  Paper correspondence, and all the attendant attachments, are among the most valuable and heavily used materials in the Archives, so collecting correspondence shared as email is essential for research.  In addition to correspondence, a considerable amount of work flows through email, including meeting minutes, reports, policy documents, and research information.  Email provides a window into many important activities, many of which may not be preserved otherwise.

The Archives collects University records in the form of email through its records management program and also through targeted collecting of personal email, including that of faculty and independent student organizations.  Once collected, email is brought into Harvard Library’s Electronic Archiving System (EAS).  Within that system, archivists review the content, describe it, and take various other actions to make the collected email easily accessible to future researchers.  From EAS, email is transferred into the Library’s preservation repository, the DRS.

Email collected by the Archives is not currently available for research principally due to current technical limitations.  However, the Archives is, with the Harvard Library, exploring solutions to these limitations.  For the time being, the original copy of email in the Archives’ collection will be maintained so that the donor or originating department can be provided with a copy in the event that information from the email is needed.  Harvard’s records policies also currently restrict researcher access to University records for either 50 years (administrative records) or 80 years (records with content about individuals).  Access restrictions for non-University or personal email varies by collection. 

The Harvard Library, including the Harvard University Archives, is currently a partner in an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant designed to further develop the functionality of ePADD, an email archiving tool developed by Stanford University.  While not designed for preservation, ePADD contains modules for donor appraisal, discovery, and delivery of email, functionality not currently represented in Harvard’s systems.  The use of both systems promises to enhance the Archives’ ability to collect and provide access to archival email.

Information about the Harvard Library’s initiatives related to email, including ePADD, can be found at http://library.harvard.edu/preservation/email-archiving.