Emails for Posterity

January/February 2016

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Emails for Posterity

Illustration: James Yang

Considering that the collected papersof David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president, would stack higher than a 20-story building, the digital dawn must have been a huge hosanna moment for archivists and historians. Future Stanford leaders could bequeath more information in a thimble of silicon—and the correspondence would be searchable and legible, unlike handwriting of yore.

But electronic communications bring their own headaches, including how to scrub tens of thousands of emails for sensitive information such as credit card and social security numbers. Such concerns have kept a tight lid on many email collections as archivists ponder the vast challenge.

Now Stanford Libraries is gaining traction by developing its own open-source software that balances the polar concerns of access and privacy.

Released this summer, ePADD dives into email collections hunting for a customizable list of targets, including names, locations, organizations and even emoticons. Image files are culled into a single location. If a “Peter” happens to be mentioned in one email, the program can assess the entire collection to find the likelihood of which “Peter” it is, and then draw connections between other correspondence and pull from the Internet to show Peter’s likely biography.

EPADD also allows archivists and donors to comb through vast amounts of data for sensitive materials, like medical or financial information, that can be restricted or removed. To guard privacy, the program provides a redacted discovery mode available via the Internet, with far greater access provided to onsite researchers. 

“Because it’s been so difficult to appraise, process and preserve email accounts, only a few institutions have been able to collect them,” says Kate Tasker, a digital archivist at UC-Berkeley. “I think more institutions will now be able to capture email using ePADD, which means we will have a deeper and richer historical record.”

The program is available for free download, though it’s still a work in progress. In August, the Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded Stanford Libraries a $685,000 grant, money that will beef up the program’s ability to process ever-larger collections.

But ePADD is destined for wider application. Sudheendra Hangal, MS ’02, PhD ’12, one of the program’s developers, says his interest sprang from the realization that personal emails have become much like diaries for generations past—a record of our daily lives, one we’re going to want to delve into.

“So in the next decade, I predict that individuals and families will routinely use tools like ePADD to preserve history important to them,” he told a Library of Congress blogger. “We’re all archivists in that sense.”

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