Global Economics

British Library Aims to Save E-Mails


While embracing the move from pen and paper, the British Library is attempting to battle the ephemeral nature of e-mail with digital archiving

Many, especially historians, complain that e-mail is too ethereal and that communication is being lost to future generations. Now, the British Library is trying to do something about it.

It used to be that historians had but to sort through musty papers and documents to gain an insight into history. But elegant calligraphy and perfume-scented stationery have long since given way to a limited selection of fonts and emoticons. The e-mail revolution has almost completely replaced letter writing, making many traditionalists cringe.

Others, though, have decided to embrace the change rather than resist it. The British Library, home to some of the most prized historic documents, has now teamed up with software giant Microsoft to collect and archive e-mails and create a snap-shot of British life for future generations to peruse. The library is calling on Britons to click open their archives and to send in their most interesting. In just over 24 hours, the library has already received 1,800 submissions.

"E-mail has in many respects replaced traditional forms of communications such as letters or memoranda," said John Tuck, head of British Collections at the British Library in a statement. This project "will allow us to archive a vast snapshot of our present-day e-mail communications and will be of great value for future researchers."

The project, E-mail Britain, will store messages in an "e-mail time capsule" and categorize them by theme: Blunders, Life Changing E-mails, Complaints, Spam, Love and Romance, Humor, Everyday E-mails, News, World Around You, and Tales from Abroad.

Of course, the resulting archive will still be a far-cry from the shelves full of documents historians previously worked with. E-mail is replete with dangers and possibilities hardly rivalled by snail mail: the impetuous reply, the forwarding of impetuous replies, the deadly 'Blind Copy', the passive-aggression of winking emoticons. But, from the perspective of historical documentation, perhaps the most troubling aspect of e-mail is authenticity.

Though there are well-established, scientific methods to determine whether an historic document is authentic, the same does not apply to cyber communications. "There are ways of tracing origin of e-mails and other digital manuscripts by examining headers and comparing with other e-mails, but there is always some uncertainty," Jeremy John, British Library E-Manuscript curator, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

John adds that there are forgeries, and that in the end, historians and scholars will have to weigh up all the factors to determine authenticity. "The general public can be warned that there is always some uncertainty. It will be one of the roles of curators to point to relevant aspects of individual e-mails," he said.

Lawrence Christensen, a spokesperson for the library, added that preservation is also more complex for digital media. Techniques to preserve manuscripts, newspapers and photographs present well understood challenges. But, preserving e-mails and other digital media "is especially complicated by the rapid rate of obsolescence in digital media formats and reading devices," he said.

"Digital archiving of e-mail has never been attempted before on this scale and we're excited to be capturing such a rich slice of contemporary life," added John Tuck.

The British Library plays home to such works as the Magna Carta, the letters of Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare's first work -- a collection that will now be enriched by intra-office e-spats and mass advertisements for Viagra.

Provided by Spiegel Online—Read the latest from Europe's largest newsmagazine

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