As 2008 came around, I found myself doing a much-loved semi-annual ritual: archiving the old email. For the last ten years or so, I’ve kept almost all of my email in one monolithic inbox while relying on search to find a particular message (the exception being mailing lists, which get their own folders). Every six months, I move that inbox and sent box into an archive folder. It’s like spring cleaning, but it’s fun and only takes a couple of minutes. As a result of this process, I have reasonably quick access to almost every e-mail sent to my personal accounts since about August, 1997.
Several days ago, I asked a friend of mine to dig up a particular type of email that I was confident she received all the time, so that I could see how they typically look. She responded saying that she certainly gets them, but she almost always deletes them. Why? To keep things tidy, and because she doesn’t expect that she would ever need them again.
When was the last time you were really glad you deleted an email sent to your personal address?
While I definitely don’t need the vast majority of messages I have archived, I do find myself looking back through those archives once in a while. A few weeks ago, I had to reference some technical documentation I’d written for a Linux consulting firm back in 2000, and there it was. It’s also useful to find contact information or to recall that name just barely outside of mind’s reach. My email ends up being a catalog of much of my research and correspondence, and that seems pretty valuable, at least valuable to me.
In these days of massive disk storage, even at hosting providers, it should be quite easy for most people to store all of their email for at least a couple of years. My archives back to 2003 come in around 2GB or so. My archives prior to that are gzipped, since I very rarely touch them, and use about 1.8GB. In all, I could probably maintain a decade of email, and I get a substantial amount of it, within 10GB.
Certainly, there are some types of email that would simply be a waste to archive — spam, bac’n, and other automated messages that you probably didn’t even want to get the first time would fall into this category, and perhaps messages on a few mailing lists that are archived online in multiple locations. Archiving business email for an extended period may introduce some liability, so I can understand those circumstances as well.
So if you delete email beyond these exceptions, why? Have you ever regretted that, and if so, did that trigger a change in your practices?