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Magazines > Information Today > September 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 8 — September 2004

When All Is Nothing and Something More
By Dick Kaser

This summer, after years of procrastination, I finally got around to archiving my e-mail—3 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 nothing—at 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 something more?

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 are best.

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, nothingness.

Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content. His e-mail address is
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