Archiving old email – part one

Some may wonder why, but I’ve been on a long quest to properly archive my old email. I have around 25,000 email messages saved since 1995, and I’d like them to be organized, searchable and future-proof. Of course, some emails I like to keep for purely sentimental reasons, but I also have found my archive useful when working with home videos and photos albums. Have a video of a camping trip but don’t remember when it was? Find the planning emails!

Over the years I’ve had a lot of accounts on a lot of systems. First, in college, I had your typical Unix mail. Later, I used a POP mail account with Eudora. Most recently, I ended up using Outlook to download the mail from my webmail accounts. I wasn’t entirely happy with this setup, since only Outlook can read the PST files that the mail is stored in, and if a PST file gets too big it can self-destruct.

Local mail archive

The first thing I wanted to do was to store my mail in a standard format (i.e. future-proof) on my PC. I chose Thunderbird as my desktop client, since it runs on any operating system, is fairly stable, and uses the standard “mbox” mail file format. Likewise, importing mail from Outlook is easy (there’s an import wizard), and importing from Unix mail and Eudora files is as easy as copying the mailbox files into the mail folder (since both use the mbox format).

Importing your backlog

Here are the steps I took to archive my backlog of old mail in Thunderbird:

  1. Install Thunderbird.
  2. Import all your old email into Thunderbird. If you’re using Eudora, Outlook or Outlook Express, you can just use Thunderbird’s import feature.
  3. Make sure you don’t have any duplicates. Use the Remove Duplicate Messages Thunderbird extension. See part two for some hints.
  4. Clean up the spam, junk notifications, etc. from your imported mail. See part two for more information.
  5. Move all of the old mail under a “Mail Archive” folder. Create subfolders to organize if you want, but keep it all under the archive folder.

Archiving new mail

To continue archiving the new mail you receive, set up Thunderbird to download your incoming mail. Here’s what I did:

  1. Set up Thunderbird to download mail from your POP3 accounts. Here’s how to set up Thunderbird with Gmail, for instance.
  2. Make sure you don’t directly put this mail into the “Mail Archive” folder listed above.
  3. Set up filters to delete or move any email you’re not going to keep.

Every once in a while, you can process new mail into the archive:

  1. Hit the “Get Mail” button in Thunderbird to download new messages into the inbox.
  2. Clean up the inbox using all the techniques you used for cleaning up your initial backlog above.
  3. Move the good mail to the “Mail Archive” folder once it’s clean.

Those are my basic processes. In a post coming soon I’ll discuss some techniques for cleaning up your mail folders to get rid of spam, notification emails, etc.

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