UA Tapped for Nationwide Digital Preservation Task Force
The University will serve on the Task Force on Technical Approaches for Email Archives, which also includes representatives from Google, Microsoft and the Smithsonian Institution.

By Jane Prescott-Smith, University Libraries
Nov. 7, 2016

The University of Arizona has been selected to serve on a task force that will spend the next 12 months preparing recommendations for specific actions that archives could take to create, preserve and provide access to records of electronic correspondence.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Digital Preservation Coalition have announced the formation of the Task Force on Technical Approaches for Email Archives, charged with assessing current frameworks, tools and approaches being taken toward such critical historical sources.

Erin O'Meara, head of the Office of Digital Innovation and Stewardship within the University Libraries, will serve as the UA representative on the task force. The group also includes representatives from Google, Microsoft, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Rockefeller Archive Center, Smithsonian Institutional Archives, and Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities.

"A valuable component of many of our archives in Special Collections — for example, the Morris Udall collection — is correspondence," O'Meara said. "Today, correspondence is primarily conducted by email. So a scalable solution to email archiving will be an important tool for libraries to preserve materials for future scholars."

Personal correspondence long has 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 to understand and learn from history, providing evidence of the functions and activities of governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations, families and individuals. 

"A major goal of the University Libraries is to advance learning and scholarship by providing access to content," said Karen Williams, the UA's dean of libraries. "Personal correspondence is a unique resource which can provide context for and bridge gaps in public accounts of historical events."

Much of that correspondence is now embodied by digital materials, and particularly emails, which have proved 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," said Christopher Prom, co-chair of the task force and also an assistant university archivist and the Andrew S. G. Turyn Endowed Professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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 Kate Murray, co-chair of the task force and IT specialist in the Technology Policy Directorate at the Library of Congress.

"The technical issues around email preservation are compounded by the sheer scale of the collections," Murray said. "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 archiving have agreed that the time is right to re-examine 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 to construct this technical framework, adjust existing tools to fit within this framework, and begin to fill in any missing elements.

Over the next 12 months, task-force members will examine these issues, then prepare a report of findings with recommendations for specific actions that archives could take within five years to create, preserve and provide access to records of electronic correspondence.

Extra info

Participants in the task force will include experts who are currently employed by the UA; Google and Microsoft; Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities; the University of Texas, University of Michigan and University of Manchester; the National Archives and Records Administration; the Rockefeller Archive Center; the Smithsonian Institution Archives; the Digital Preservation Coalition; and Artefactual Systems.


Resources for the media

Jane Prescott-Smith

University Libraries


Laura Washington

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation