by Marian Pierre-Louis
When it comes to recording, preserving and conservation genealogists have impressive skills. Genealogists will scan or photograph original documents for later review. They will enter their data in a genealogy program - and even cite the sources! They will put family letters into protective sleeves and precious photos into acid free boxes. But there's one area that genealogists often overlook.
When was the last time you saved your email? While all email can be considered important, let's just consider the email related to your family history. This could be correspondence with a distant cousin or sending a request to an archive for a document. It could be a group collaboration on a sticky genealogical puzzle. Or it could be correspondence with a genealogical professional located in your ancestor's home town.
Many people feel that saving email in their email program is good enough. That's a dangerous game to play. Email programs were never intended to be database repositories. Many of them even have a size capacity limit. After that limit has been reached the programs can get glitches, crash or stop working. For instance, when using Outlook 2003 or 2007 the size limit of the file (a .pst file) is 20 GB. That may seem large but if you are emailing photos or videos you could reach capacity very quickly. The size limit for Outlook 2010 is 50 GB but from what I've read online 5GB is a good practical working limit for any of those programs.
While you may not experience software crashes with Google Mail (Gmail), you will encounter mailbox size limits. Most users have the standard free 15GB limit. Schools and businesses may have 30 GB limits. Items in your spam and trash folders count toward your limit. Beyond that you will either have to delete email to make more room or have to purchase extra space.
Even if your inbox doesn't reach capacity there are other threats to the safety of your email. In my case, my HP laptop overheated (a known issue) and the hard drive crashed not once, but twice. Some of my data was salvaged but much of it was lost.
Over the years I have been negligent about saving my email properly. I did make backup copies but over a 10 year period sometimes even the backup copies get lost.
So what is the solution? Save individual emails to another format. Using the "Save As" feature in Outlook, you can save individual emails as html, text (.txt) as well as some Outlook message formats. My recommendation is to save the email in .txt format to your genealogy directories. Txt is the most basic format and most easily read by other programs. It is the least likely to become obsolete due to software version changes.
Gmail users have a harder time saving their email beyond using copy and paste. It is now possible to save your Gmail in the .mbox format (see here for instructions). This will save all of your emails to a single file (which is great for backing up!). If you want to save individual emails to your genealogy folders, you'll have to use the cut and paste method.
Another thing you can do (I would do this in addition to saving individual emails to your computer) is to copy and paste emails to the notes area for the relevant ancestor in your genealogy software program.
While some correspondence, as mentioned earlier, is very obvious and should be saved, there are other emails hiding in your inbox that are even more important. These are the emails you exchange with your parents, siblings and extended family.
Sometimes these emails are very short such as "when was Aunt Louise born?" and its corresponding answer. Others are important gems hidden in the midst of day to day chatting. For instance your mother might mention the weather being windy today and then mention that time when the family gathered together during the 1938 hurricane.
These are the emails that I've lost. I've emailed my uncles with quick queries or received unsolicited stories and memories. But my day to day life was too busy to stop what I was doing to save the emails to a different format on my hard drive in an organized manner. One of my uncles has since passed and all my email exchanges with him are lost.
There's no teacher like experience! I now carefully consider each email I receive and quickly save it to the correct family directory. When saving emails be sure to capture the date and to and from fields Hopefully you will have the chance to learn from my experience before you make the same mistake yourself.
Do you have a different way to save your family history related email? Tell us about it!