In the past 18 months I’ve lost four writing colleagues, prompting me to recall (again) an ongoing discussion. Beyond the tangible items left behind—books, manuscripts, documents, photos—there’s something more. Far more.
The writer’s emails.
Two longtime colleagues died last summer: Robert F. Dorr in June and John Gresham in July. Bob, an Air Force and State Department veteran, started as a writer for men’s magazines in the 1950s and eventually published about 70 books. Many of his online articles are still available.
John was Tom Clancy’s main nonfiction coauthor. When John departed the pattern last July at age 58, I was reminded of our occasional conversations about disposition of one’s email accounts. He had an enormous acquaintance among military professionals, techno-geeks, and researchers. He used to laugh it off, saying that a buddy’s first obligation was to “scrub” the decedent’s emails before allowing anyone else access.
So—what to do?
Any of our Usual Suspects has hundreds or even thousands of messages from sources that could not be duplicated--rare/unique information and recollections that never saw publication. Rather than allow an email account to languish and eventually be cancelled, shouldn't The History Community be discussing how to preserve such material by making it available? The mechanics can be complex not only technically but legally. Who owns a deceased person’s email files? Who can grant access. And how?
Presumably the decedent’s heirs have legal ownership of the traffic, but I don’t know if that’s been determined in court. So could anyone with an account password gain legal access? I suspect not, but the world is afloat in hackers, some of whom may just be curious about a writer’s files.
How long will an email account remain on a server once it’s gone inactive? I do not know—probably it varies according to the provider--but it’s a major concern. So would it be necessary or advisable to generate keep-it-going messages from that account?
Once a person’s account is available, there’s probably no way to limit access to specific messages or folders. That will cause problems in many or most cases because of confidentiality and just plain embarrassing content.
Consequently, probably the safest prospect is for a designated individual or committee to field requests from qualified researchers—however they may be defined. A relative or colleague could then search the email files for the relevant data and provide it, perhaps for a fee. But obviously that requires someone with the time, interest, and knowledge to do the spadework.
I have some subject folders in my email accounts that I would like to transfer to thumb drives or CDs. As yet I’ve not found a way to do that, and probably should seek professional help.
Meanwhile, a handful of us have made initial attempts to put emails in order. Several years ago a colleague and I went through 300 or 400 messages from an elderly friend (still living) who probably knows more about Subject XYZ than anyone living. But the originals were scrambled and rambling so we cut and pasted and relabeled them for easier reference. It took weeks but we got it done. However, I don't think many people will do that once—let alone repeatedly.
In academia, Serious Historians often dismiss emails as legitimate source material because they’re not published and do not appear in the public domain. Therefore, footnotes and references citing emails may be considered more hearsay than documentation. But I’ve often cited emails for direct quotations in several books with hardly a burp from colleagues or reviewers.
Obviously, this brief blog entry is not going to settle the matter, but maybe it can generate some competent commentary among more knowledgeable people. If you have any observations or suggestions, feel free to comment.