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Digital Preservation

The Library of Congress > Digital Preservation > Personal Archiving > Electronic Mail

Keeping Personal Electronic Mail

Like paper letters, your e-mail messages document important events, transactions and relationships.

Saving an e-mail involves keeping it separate from your e-mail program. This is because e-mail programs are not meant to keep information for a long time: they can change or stop providing support at any time.

Archiving Tips

Identify all your e-mail sources

  • Identify your personal e-mail accounts.
  • Within each account, find all folders or other separate groupings of messages; include any "archived" messages.

Decide which messages have long-term value

  • Pick the messages you feel are especially important.
  • You can pick a few messages or many.
  • Save attachments that are part of the selected messages .

Export the selected messages

  • If saving a few messages, you can use the "save as" command in your e-mail browser or software program to export them as individual files.
  • If saving many e-mails, investigate automatically exporting them using the email program.
  • If possible, save messages in an open format.
  • Save metadata for the messages, including the message "header" (the subject, from, to and time and date).

Organize the saved messages

  • Give individual messages and attachments descriptive file names.
  • Create a directory/folder structure on your computer to put the saved messages and attachments.
  • Write a brief summary of the directory structure and its files.

Make copies and manage them in different places

  • Make at least two copies of your selected messages and attachments—more copies are better.
  • One copy can stay on your computer or laptop; put other copies on separate media such as DVDs, CDs, portable hard drives, thumb drives or Internet storage.
  • Store copies in different locations that are as physically far apart as practical. If disaster strikes one location, copies of your e-mails and attachments in the other place should be safe.
  • Put a copy of the summary description with your important papers in a secure location.
  • Check your saved e-mail and attachments at least once a year to make sure you can read them.
  • Create new media copies every five years or when necessary to avoid data loss.

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