Should I be keeping over a decade of personal email?
July 19, 2011 7:30 AM   Subscribe

I've been keeping all of my personal email since 2001. I keep it nicely organized in yearly folders and sub-folders...but should I?

This is vaguely related to this question. My personal email file goes all the way back to 2001. Each year, I create a folder and subfolders for the previous year's emails and store them away. These emails can be anything from e-mail receipts to correspondence from friends and family to long and rambling love letters sent between myself and ex- romantic partners.

Besides the occassional need to find an emailed software activation code in my archives, I have rarely touched these emails over the years and, when I have, I've been amused or (many times) embarassed to see who I was years ago and the promises or emotional pontifications that I made that are no longer valid today.

I've also kept a diary (not in my email) for the past 7 years that will pretty much tell the same story that could be gained from my personal emails, albeit less specifically.

I have a very strong tendency to want to "pack rat" things for no good reason, and I know that at my place of employment, they actively encourage us to delete ANYTHING that is no longer actively needed (I assume for legal reasons).

Oh, also, the email resides on my own mail server, so space is not a concern.

So, my question is: why should or shouldn't I keep those e-mails around? Are there legal implications to keeping the email (e.g., could it be discovered in a lawsuit and be used might paint me in an unfavorable light - even if that would be a stretch)? Are there good reasons why it is useful to keep these old emails? Does it really matter one way or the other? What are your thoughts?
posted by jspierre to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I archive all my old mail. While it is silly in some respects, I ended up taking a job which required a 10 year background check. It was great having lots of old contact information and details about travel in there.
posted by k8t at 7:41 AM on July 19, 2011

Certainly its contents could be used in a lawsuit against you. They could also be used, by you, as a defense in a lawsuit or prosecution against you. You probably have a clearer sense than we do of whether {stuff you have to hide} > {stuff you have no reason to hide}.

My own instinct is -- if space isn't an issue, you're actually more organized if you just leave it alone without ever accessing it again, than if you spend time deleting or (god forbid) sorting it. Maybe it'll be useful, probably not, but why spend the hour?
posted by foursentences at 7:44 AM on July 19, 2011

I've been amused or (many times) embarassed to see who I was years ago and the promises or emotional pontifications that I made that are no longer valid today.

This is a good thing.

Since space isn't a concern, and they're not causing any physical clutter, you might as well keep them.
posted by Gymnopedist at 7:44 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I spoke imprecisely there -- to be clear, the contents could be used against you in a prosecution or in a lawsuit, and they also could be used defensively by you in a prosecution or in a lawsuit.
posted by foursentences at 7:47 AM on July 19, 2011

I keep mine. I like to have the reminders of what I was doing X years ago, or when the last time was that I spoke with Y. I say keep 'em.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:50 AM on July 19, 2011

Keep it. As long as it's all in one place then it's very searchable at basically no cost to you. That means if you use it even once or twice then you'll have a net gain for having kept it.
posted by anaelith at 7:56 AM on July 19, 2011

I have a very strong tendency to want to "pack rat" things for no good reason, and I know that at my place of employment, they actively encourage us to delete ANYTHING that is no longer actively needed (I assume for legal reasons).

I would think that's more for space reasons than legal ones. As for your question, here are two reasons to dump them: 1. as a relatively easy first salvo in your fight against your packrat habits (if you want to fight them) and 2. so that if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, whoever has to go through your stuff doesn't see them.
posted by headnsouth at 7:57 AM on July 19, 2011

If you feel you're a different person now and are often embarrassed looking back at old e-mails...find all all software registration e-mails that might come in handy, and dump the rest...after a short while you won't miss any of it. Like watching McGyver later in life and being disappointed in its production quality, some things are best kept a fuzzy fond memory....
posted by samsara at 8:15 AM on July 19, 2011

Remember how you felt when you read old letters your parents or grandparents wrote. Now think about how your children and grandchildren will feel in 50 years when they read your emails to long deceased family and friends. I'll bet those 'rambling love letters' will be very important to them.
posted by husky at 8:15 AM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is relevant, but I once read that Mark Cuban has every email he has ever received and written.

I keep all my personal emails. If space is not an issue, why not? Then it only comes down to your decision on when or if to access them.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:18 AM on July 19, 2011

This sort of reminds me of MeFi keeping all comments. Yes, there is a chance you will be embarassed by something you said five years ago that turned out to be woefully uninformed, but it keeps you honest. You never know when you'll need a URL you looked at once three years ago.

On the other hand, it's not necessarily useful if it isn't searchable.
posted by maryr at 8:28 AM on July 19, 2011

My own personal email archives go back about that long, but they're spotty and largely incomplete before 2004 or so. I often wish I had those older messages, so much so that I felt a twinge of jealousy when I saw your question.

From my perspective, you're much more likely to regret trashing them than keeping them.
posted by Zozo at 8:31 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I keep old mail but now I refuse to sort it. Gmail inspired me to simply dump it in a huge bin so I can search it. I don't want to use Gmail though so my current setup simply delivers two copies of each incoming message: one to the inbox and one to an archive folder. I delete the inbox copy when I'm done with it and the archive copy stays. Now I don't even need to copy messages. This is great when you are running your old server.

Sometimes I get annoyed with the occasional work it takes to ensure that the old mail stays around. I have mail from over five years ago that is in Microsoft Outlook; accessing these would be difficult at best. Now I make sure the mail is stored in a non-proprietary format. But I can't see any reason to throw it out, and even the memory of some of it makes me chuckle.
posted by massysett at 9:14 AM on July 19, 2011

I have every single email sent/received since 1994. I kept my email downloaded onto my computer using Netscape Mail, then transferred that to Outlook Express in the late 90s and finally to Thunderbird when it was released. I kept it through all the different computers I went through over the years.

It takes up far less space than my movies/music and is great to have around. Because emails have their attachments, I am able to dig up all kinds of stuff (photos, documents, old leases, timelines of trips etc). I almost never read through the ones before 2003 (everything in the early 90s are misspelled emails and loads of forwarded jokes) but it is often shocking to see how much I've changed over the years.

On two occasions it did save my hide. For example, in 2005, a new staff person in my department lied to me "I told you back in March that it was not possible" but she had sent me an email in June saying "Thanks for checking in but I haven't even looked at it yet". I forwarded the emails to my boss and her boss, she got reprimanded, and I got what I wanted.

So it is handy to have around.
posted by babbyʼ); Drop table users; -- at 10:50 AM on July 19, 2011

I actually find it to be an invaluable reference too.

I am an academic and several emails I received when I was in grad school were of no relevance to me back then but they are now. And since I have the emails and attachments, I can easily dig then up in a minute or so.

For example, someone has asked me to teach a class on a specific topic (which I declined). I never took that in grad school but I remember the announcement, the syllabus, and all the weekly readings that were sent out over email. If I had to teach that class, I'd have a baseline syllabus and a ton of background material readily searchable inside my own email.
posted by babbyʼ); Drop table users; -- at 10:55 AM on July 19, 2011

I just re-read an old email from January 1995 when I was deciding between colleges. I wrote a close friend the time that someday I was going to get a PhD and go into academia.

posted by babbyʼ); Drop table users; -- at 11:00 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am kind of a ninja hard-core de-clutterer, so that's the perspective I'm coming from.

It's true that there is no physical/literal down side to digital hoarding. The problem comes when files clutter up your working area (people having to sort through thousands of files to find the spreadsheet they use daily), or when they place an undue burden on someone else's system (your work email admin will hate you).

In your case, you are passing both tests with flying colors. You have a mail server with all the space you could want, which warehouses your emails out of your way, and doesn't put the burden of storage on some other entity. So from that perspective, I would give you a pass to keep all those emails.

And so we move on to the philosophical issues.

You have already given a clear answer as to why you keep the emails. The fact that you can clearly articulate the value they have to you is a good sign that you should keep them. But the existence of this unusually large email archive does raise a few other questions:

Is email the only thing you are hoarding? How do your closets look? Your bookshelves, kitchen cabinets, dining room table? Are you ignoring those areas of physical clutter and focusing on your email server because it's easier to deal with?

Why are you keeping those emails live, on an active mail server? As a former server admin myself, you and I both know that servers crash and burn every day. If those emails are valuable to you, would you consider migrating them to a more permanent storage media?

I suspect that having them all live on your server gives you a comforting sense of continuity. Maybe you could burn a copy of them to DVD Just In Case, and leave the originals in place?
posted by ErikaB at 11:28 AM on July 19, 2011

These are terrific answers and it seems like the overwhelming majority tends toward "keep", which I think I'll do.

Let me be clear, though - LOL - I am not a hoarder. I don't have cats stacked to the ceiling or newspapers stacked on my floors. Quite the opposite. I'm pretty much a neat freak in most aspects of my life - except digitally...and even that I organize, prioritize, label and cross-reference until everything has a place and is relatively easy to find - even if it is decades old.

As for the reliability of the archive data itself, I'm fairly secure that I have that covered - my server is on a RAID 10 array and does a daily rsync backup to another server I have access to located in a different state. I also back up that account locally to my actual home once per week. If all of that crashes and burns at once, I'd think it was meant to be. ;-)

Anyway, many kudos to everyone who weighed in on this issue for me!
posted by jspierre at 12:17 PM on July 19, 2011

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