AHRC project 'Historicizing the dot.com bubble'

We have been awarded funding from the AHRC to investigate how historical researchers may be able to research emails as historical sources, and use this resource to historicise the dot.com boom from the perspective of a software development company. See below for a description of the project.

The Queen sends her first email in 1976 (Courtesy of the Computer History Museum)

Historicizing the dot.com bubble and contextualizing email archives

  • Prof Stephanie Decker (University of Bristol, UK)
  • Dr Adam Nix (De Montford University, UK)
  • Prof David Kirsch (University of Maryland, USA, and University of Oxford, UK)
  • Dr Santhilata Kuppili Venkata, The National Archives (UK)
  • Dr Eric Rau, Hagley Museum & Library (USA)

Summary

Future researchers will have to engage with emails if they are to understand the lives of those who lived in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This is particularly true of organizations and their employees, for whom email has become the default form of internal and external communication. As it currently stands, publicly available email archives are rare, and there has been minimal engagement with them as a historical resource. Indeed, one of the most well-known examples, the Enron Email Corpus, only exists because of high-profile legal proceedings that followed the firm’s bankruptcy and has seen minimal historical investigation since its publication. While this is partly due to its comparative recency, the reading of emails as a historical source is a developing practice and requires particular skills and knowledge that are not traditionally associated with historical enquiry. Despite this, archives and other heritage organizations are increasingly collecting and preserving email data and we are fast moving into the period where the events of the 1990s are of historical interest. We believe that our project offers a timely opportunity to address the gap between current efforts to preserve email and the future requirements that will allow them to actually be read and engaged with.

To address this issue, we seek a better understanding of how email archives can be made more accessible for the purposes of historical learning and research. The problem we focus on here is that, while emails offer valuable insight to researchers, a lack of context often presents a challenge to those wishing to understand their content, inter-relationship and wider historical significance. This de-contextualization can represent a barrier to engagement, to both trained historians and general interest users. Furthermore, existing examples of email archives often purposefully remove personal information, further disconnecting emails from their authors, recipients and connection to related material. For these reasons, our project will make an email archive available in such a way that maintains the relational and network properties that emails hold, as these allow individual emails to be understood in terms of their connection to those that precede and follow them. Furthermore, we will bring the historical context back to otherwise de-contextualized data, allowing researchers to interpret isolated items of communication in a way that appreciates the wider historical circumstances in which they were created.

We will address this challenge through a UK-US collaboration between three universities (University of Bristol, De Montfort University, University of Maryland) and two heritage sector partners (The National Archives, UK, and Hagley Museum and Library, US). Through these collaborations, the project will focus on accessioning and re-contextualizing a worked example of an email archive from a failed US software company from the dot.com era, making it available in various forms to suit the diverse requirements of its potential readers. More specifically, the project has three overall work packages that together deliver on the project’s aim and objectives. The first aspect of the project centres around work linking the constituent emails in the archive together to retain the basic network structure of the communications and making relational links to otherwise disconnected emails based on their content. This will be combined with a user interface that allows the whole archive to be searched and read. The second aspect of the project provides a historical case study of the failed US company based on its archive and will require the development of both a narrative explanation of its history and an online platform for public engagement with it. The final package focuses on the project’s legacy and deals with issues of long-term preservation of the archive, description of best practice, and engagement with project stakeholders.