When All Is Nothing and Something More
By Dick Kaser
This summer, after years of procrastination, I finally got around to archiving
my e-mail3 years' worth. I'm talking 40,000 messages, even after despamification.
I'm talking 15,000 attachments. I'm talking the dated and time-stamped electronic
paper trail that documents just about everything I've done so far this century.
Some tell me I'm nuts for even keeping the stuff. They say e-mail is so "of
the moment," so spontaneous and so ephemeral that once it's done, it's done,
right? Why would you ever need to go back and look at it again?
OK, I admit it. I'm an incurable pack rat. But at least no one can accuse
me of not being Sarbanes-Oxley compliant.
At the end of my archiving project, I find myself pondering this largely
rhetorical, sort of theoretical, and somewhat contradictory question: When
you save everything, do you actually preserve nothing?
Call me Camus. I mean, without taking the time to select the stuff that is
actually worth keeping, aren't I just leaving behind a big file that no one,
including me, would ever want to take the time to figure out? The gems are
buried in there among the minutiae, just like in real time. And you would really
have to know what you were looking for to even start searching. So, I'm wondering,
in the end can all actually prove to be nothingat least nothing that
is going to be preserved for very long?
But time is dear and digital storage space is cheap. So why not just be done
with it and keep it all on file? It's loads faster to just write it to disc
than to go through it. Who knows what might be useful later? Let time tell.
And, besides, when you save everything, don't you potentially wind up with
Once I got my e-mail archive built, I naturally started playing around with
it to see what it could do. Just by running a few simple reports, I quickly
saw some interesting patterns. Where is all this stuff coming from? What does
my network of contacts look like? Who's talking to me? Who am I talking to?
And, equally interesting, whose name isn't here or not here very much?
Not to make too much of a trivial anecdote, but at the end of this little
summer project, I find myself at the confluence of librarianship and knowledge
management. Prior to this exercise, I might have said that I didn't see the
point, for example, in archiving both pre- and post-prints of research papers,
let alone backing up and preserving the data and documents that go with the
reported research. I still wonder if it isn't too much to keep. And I still
ponder how long any of it will remain kept. But I do have more appreciation
for the value of keeping it all, rather than archiving just the parts we think
My hat is off to those of you who build digital archives for a living, to
those of you who make the search machines that are capable of isolating treasures
in large data dumps, and to those of you who are developing the analytical
and visualization techniques capable of extracting meaning from, dare I say,
Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of
content. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.