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Your email correspondence - historical value or digital clutter?

I don't like throwing away anything. Everything has historical value to me - even my utility bills from when I was first married. My wife finally convinced me to get rid of them last year, but I scanned a few, just to keep the evidence of where we lived. One thing I won't part with is my archive of emails - I have them all (except for the spam of course) - from my first email sent on August 28, 1998 to the present. There's a lot of history in the 8GB of correspondence - I wish my ancestors would have started using email a lot sooner....

This week I decided to import my personal email account and all 13 1/2 years of emails (received and sent) into Gmail. Fortunately Gmail will still let me use my personal email address to send and receive emails, but I will also get the benefits that come along with Gmail. It's taken several days now to import everything, and it's got several more to go.

During the process I've had the chance to re-read some of the very first emails I sent. Naturally, many of them relate to genealogy. I even found emails about two genealogy-related job offers - one I declined and the other I accepted (and here I am today...). You might not find them as amusing and memorable as I did, but I'm happy I kept them - it has helped to document my personal story. Here are a few of the early emails I sent.

The first email I ever sent (August 28, 1998)

Drew - Will you let me know via email if you got this message. I sent it on the 28th. Thanks, Geoff Rasmussen

My first genealogy-related email ever sent (September 1, 1998)

Dear Bill, School has started up again here in Provo, so my genealogy time has dramatically decreased, however, I wanted to write you a quick note to express my appreciation for you posting your Smart genealogy on your web page. It is very clear, and easy to understand. Just a couple of months ago, I only knew of Sarah Smart as being born about 1830, nothing else. I have loved getting to know my ancestors and enjoy corresponding with distant cousins such as yourself. I do have a few dates that you didn't have, and when I get reorganized here I'll pass them along. Until next time, take care, Geoff Rasmussen

Realizing that email is way better than snail mail (September 6, 1998)

Aunt Jessie - All of the gedcoms worked perfectly!  Thank you so very much. I love email - it's so much faster!  Geoff and Tanya

Canceled my 1-month free subscription (September 7, 1998)

I am writing to cancel my 1-month free subscription. When I was told that it was free, I didn't know that you would charge me for that month. Please cancel this and refund my money. Thank you. Geoffrey D. Rasmussen

I guess I asked for Family Tree Maker software for Christmas (October 25, 1998)

Mother, Tanya has come up with this Christmas list that you wanted. Geoff: Family Tree Maker, 2" white binders, 3" electrodes and battery charger.

My response to my very first spam email received (November 6, 1998)

Please stop sending me these kind of messages, and messages talking about the rat extermination problem. Geoff Rasmussen, BYU student.

I wonder where I would be today if I accepted this job offer (January 24, 1999)

[To Mom] I attended a national genealogy conference yesterday - my boss paid for it. I got to meet some of the BIG names from all over the country. An important person who works at Ancestry.Com wants me to work for him, being the head acquisitions manager, traveling all over the country to see what's available. I'm going to get graduated first, but they offered an internship for me. I'll be touring their place in the next few weeks.

My very first email about Asa Clark Brown (January 28, 1999)

Carol, It is true that Asa Brown and family were found in the 1850 Census of Neshannock, Lawrence, Pennsylvania. Doesn't give any clues about possible parents. I'll try to remember to send you a copy with the others. Geoff

My first genealogy business idea - I think someone else took my idea (February 9, 1999)

I'm thinking about starting my own business. Searching census records, digitizing them, and distributing them through a web site. Just a beginning thought.

Thinking about having our first child (February 9, 1999)

We've been reading baby books, and really are concentrating on what we eat.

My first email (a small portion of it) sent to Legacy and the resulting job offer from Dave Berdan to work for Legacy (March 5, 1999)

For your info, I am the computer specialist at the BYU Family History Center. Also, I am a genealogy major. You might understand my difficulties in finding just the right family history software program. I own just about every one there is, and must make a decision about which one to use. I am heavily experimenting with Legacy 2.0, which I enjoy very much…. [listed a couple of bugs I found, and sent a bunch of suggestions]

Dave’s response (March 9): Want a part time job demonstrating Legacy to all the bookstores in the Salt Lake / Provo valley???????

My response (March 10): Yes, I'd be very interested in demonstrating Legacy in the bookstores around here. Send me some information if you'd like.

And the rest is history....

What about you? What do you do with your emails - save 'em or keep 'em? Any suggestions for me on my new adventures with Gmail?


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Very funny stuff to read.

I have kept a lot of business and all genealogy email. I collect it and categorize it in EverNote v.2 and print it out occasionally as PDF, one email per page. Then I stitch the related PDF's together using an editor.

PDF's are easy to search either one at a time or en masse. Just in case I need to.

I considered using GMail ever so briefly and decided Google doesn't really access to my email too, although I'm sure they'd love to have it.

E-mails are todays mode of communication and it's important to retain SIGNIFICANT e-mails, especially those related to family history. Before I delete key e-mails to relatives or communications with genealogists or requests for records, I copy them into word docs and save them in appropriately named files. It's been enormously helpful when following up months or years later or when trying to pick up a thread of information that was misplaced physically or dropped from your memory.

Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful emails. Yes, I do keep my emails. Someday I may clean some out, but they often prove handy in preseving memories my head does not remember.

What a great idea about using Gmail as a backup! I accidentally deleted my email folder recently when trying to get rid of a bug! I recouped all I could from a memory stick and gmail. Because I had failed to back up recently, I lost all of 2011. I have my own website and receive emails from all over the world. I was devastated! It took 3 weeks to rebuild my, now incomplete, contact lists! Lesson learned!

How topical! This January I've been going back through my saved Genealogy mail and getting rid of some that I'd saved as clues that have proved to be irrelevant and attempting to contact some people who have now proved to be connected. Finding current email addresses is challenging but I've had some success. I've hesitated deleting any as it's great to be able to check in moments whether you've been in touch with someone before, but I decided it really was time to thin down my archive as well as doing a review. I've found some great information that at the time didn't appear relevant.

I've also got emails right back to my early emails in September 1996 though I appear to have been online for awhile by then. I have 155 dated pre 1 Nov 1996. However, it wasn't until 1997 that I started seriously doing Genealogy.

I've always used Eudora for email and still haven't found a replacement all this time after they stopped developing it. One of the reasons I stick with it is the ability to sort on multiple criteria and the search ability.

I know how to set up Gmail to pick up current mail from various accounts, but I don't know how to get it to import email that is currently archived on my computer. Are you emailing your old mail to your Gmail account, or is there a more efficient way?

Kathy - I'm not sure I want to answer this :) there is a more efficient way but it took more knowledge and skill than I had before I started. Here's what I did. In Outlook, you have to create a new account but it has to be set up with IMAP settings. Just set up the account with your gmail login and it should do it for you automatically. Then, you will be able to see both your gmail and your outlook accounts/folders. From here, you can simply drag/drop your outlook emails into the gmail folder. When you're done, your Outlook emails will be up at Gmail. Just an hour ago I finished the process and I'm now completely using Gmail.

I good reason to achive all those emails is that I find upon re-reading them I pickup extra clues that I missed the 1st or even 2nd time I read them

Unfortuneately my Windows XP computer died. I did subscribe to Carbonite, but I have had to get a special program to read all my old e-mails from 2004. It is a long process. I was not able to transfer my
e-mails to Outlook or Windows Live Mail. I had been using Outlook Express with my XP. I too have set up a gmail e-mail account strictly for genealogy.
Marilyn in TX

Geoff, in your article you mentioned the Smart family. I have a Lot of "Smart's" in my family and having trouble tracking them. Can you please advise where you obtained your info so that I may also search them?

As for emails, I almost never delete and my husband always deletes.

Glenda Shepherd Olejniczak

Using Yahoo - I save some email in folders as I go along but also never empty my SENT file. At the end of each year I rename it "SENT 2011" (etc) and start over. Since I am in the habit of acknowledging any good stuff I get (genealogy or otherwise) this gives me a searchable file for the year's activity. And since it is on Yahoo I don't worry about my computer crashing causing a loss.

Keeping all my personal emails was a no-brainer. I knew from the very first one I received (March 1997) that it was family history in the making. I've even kept some of those jokes and "please keep this email going" messages that make the rounds because they show the types of things people thought were funny.

I've made a Word document for each family member and save the emails with all headers and attachments. Now, since my nieces and nephews have switched to texts, I'm adding many of those messages to the Word documents too.

Backup is easy. I have external hard drives and make incremental backups every week and I subscribe to Backblaze, which is an amazing company. The initial backup takes weeks, but then it works continuously in the background. $50 a year for unlimited storage.

Don't you wish you had all your grandparents' correspondence?

I use folders to organize my email correspondence into subjects - Travel (by trip), Groups I belong to (Bookclub, Church),etc. Some really useful ones are separate folders for each family line which I title by surname + correspondence.

Hello Geoff. As an inveterate hoarder, I can relate VERY well to your situation. And to Peter YORKE: yes: I have discovered the same thing: re-reading old messages gives me more clues which I missed on earlier readings. Just had a breakthrough in a brick wall recently; and when reading through old messages for that line, discovered that this avenue had been recommended by someone years ago. grrr.. at myself.

I have been berated by a few people for using my Outlook as a permanent e-mail filing cabinet; but so far have not found an easy way of storing them otherwise -- and don't wish to use Gmail or Yahoo. I think that this slows down my Outlook e-mail a bit, but that is the price that I have to pay. AND yes, I also panicked last year when I lost a lot of my Outlook emails when a "compacting" process stalled. grrr..
Thanks for all of your notes, Geoff; I really enjoy them. Ray who bought Legacy version 2 -- probably at around the same time that you joined them. A great company.

My emails are a significant source of advice, references, and I cite them frequently as sources of genealogical information. However, I have a different problem: I receive daily/weekly/monthly genealogical digests, and there are frequently items of interest in them. However, I do not know how to file them so that I can see what the item of interest is. I now have 100+ emails with the subject line "Belarus SIG digest", "LitvakSIG digest" or "Legacy tips and genealogy news", and cannot see at a glance why I thought they were significant enough to keep. Has anyone found an easy/meaningful way to tag them, or store them without creating many folders in my inbox? (I use Outlook and gmail)

Glenda - I've done a lot of the research personally on the Smarts. Send me an email if you'd like to correspond on the family.

I copy and paste into my address, the part that interests me, mail it to myself and depending on how you want to list the title, then put it in that folder. Peggy

Celia, if you install a desktop search such as Copernic on your PC, the subject line of all those SIG digests will not matter so much: you can search for what you need and at least know that the resulting lists is all relevant.
I have 3.2 GB of Outlook PST files going back to April 1997, with text files for individual messages going back to September 1996 (comes of being an archivist... :-)) As long as Outlook can still read the old messages, and I still do a weekly off-site backup, it feels reasonably safe, though the Gmail option takes care of both the backup and obsolescence issues at once. Harder to get text messages onto the PC, especially from an old phone...

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