Mellon Foundation and Digital Preservation Coalition Sponsor Formation of Task Force for Email Archives

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mellon Foundation and Digital Preservation Coalition Sponsor Formation of Task Force for Email Archives 

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Digital Preservation Coalition announced the formation of a Task Force on Technical Approaches for Email Archives. The task force is charged with assessing current frameworks, tools, and approaches being taken toward these critical historical sources. Christopher Prom, assistant university archivist/Andrew S. G. Turyn Endowed Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Kate Murray, IT specialist in the Technology Policy Directorate at the Library of Congress, will serve as cochairs of the task force.

Personal correspondence has long served as an essential primary source for historians and scholars across many humanities and social science disciplines. Archives of correspondence articulate authors' lived experiences. They help future generations understand and learn from history, providing evidence of the functions and activities of governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations, families, and individuals.  But today, much of that correspondence is embodied by digital materials, and particularly emails, which have proven themselves far more difficult to gather and preserve in an accessible, approachable format.

"This is a topic of deep concern.  Preserved correspondence helps students of the past develop a nuanced understanding of events, much more so than published or other widely circulated sources," explained Prom.

While archivists, technologists, librarians, and others continue to make progress in capturing, preserving, and providing access to various forms of digital expression, email has remained resistant to a variety of efforts at preservation and is currently not systematically acquired by most archives and libraries.  Part of the challenge is that email exists as a complicated interaction of technical subsystems for composition, transport, viewing, and storage.  Creating email archives involves multiple processes including acquisition and appraisal of collections, processing records, meeting privacy and legal considerations, preserving messages and attachments, and facilitating access. 

"As archives include more born-digital collections, the complex technical issues around preserving email are more prevalent and increasingly important," said Murray. "The technical issues around email preservation are compounded by the sheer scale of the collections.  Many of us have thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of email messages in our mailboxes. Solutions need to move beyond the boutique and one-off to community supported, large-scale and customizable options."

The preservation of email thus cannot rely on a single, comprehensive solution, but on the coupling and interaction of a variety of solutions covering the entire range of archival activities, from appraising the research value of email to helping researchers discover and use it.

Recent meetings of specialists in the area of email archives have agreed that the time is right to reexamine and assess current efforts to preserve email. The community needs to articulate a conceptual and technical framework in which these efforts can operate not as competing solutions, but as elements of an interoperable toolkit. The task force will aim to construct a working agenda for the community by focusing on the following three issues: (1) articulating this technical framework, (2) suggesting how existing tools fit within this framework, and (3) beginning to identify any missing elements.

The task force on Technical Approaches for Email Archives is charged to examine these issues over the next 12 months. The task force will then prepare a report of its findings, with recommendations for specific actions that archives could take within five years to create, preserve, and provide access to records of electronic correspondence.

Participants in the task force include experts who are currently employed by Google, Microsoft, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Universities, University of Manchester (UK), the National Archives and Records Administration, Rockefeller Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Digital Preservation Coalition, The University of Texas at Austin, University of Arizona, University of Michigan, and Artefactual Systems. They are:

Executive Committee
Christopher Prom (cochair)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Kate Murray (cochair)
Library of Congress

Fran Baker
University of Manchester

Matthew Connelly
Columbia University

Wendy Gogel
Harvard Library Preservation Services

Task Force Members
Hillel Arnold
Rockefeller Archive Center

Courtney Cain
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Euan Cochrane
Yale University Library

Kevin DeVorsey
National Archives and Records Administration

Glynn Edwards
Stanford University Libraries

Riccardo Ferrante
Smithsonian Institution Archives

William Kilbride
Digital Preservation Coalition

Jessica Meyerson
The University of Texas at Austin

Erin O'Meara
University of Arizona Libraries

Michael Shallcross
University of Michigan

Joel Simpson
Artefactual Systems

Richard Whitt

Julian Zbogar-Smith

About The Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC)
The not-for-profit DPC is an advocate for digital preservation. The coalition ensures its members can continue to deliver resilient long-term access to digital content and services through targeted advocacy work, training and workforce development, research and best practice, and enabling sustainability through partnerships. Its primary objective is raising awareness of the importance of the preservation of digital material and the attendant strategic, cultural and technological issues. For further information see its website at

About The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Founded in 1969, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation endeavors to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies by supporting exemplary institutions of higher education and culture as they renew and provide access to an invaluable heritage of ambitious, path-breaking work. Additional information is available at

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