New funding for Email Archives Research Project

EMCODIST – The Next Phase

Following the publication of our Dotcom-Archive website [link to Monday’s post] we’re delighted to announce that we’ve been awarded follow-on funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation [https://mellon.org] via the Email Archives: Building Capacity and Community (EA:BCC) programme at the University of Illinois [https://emailarchivesgrant.library.illinois.edu].

 “Discovery environments for using email archives: Evaluating user needs with prototype version of EMailCOntextualisationDIScovery Tool” (or just “EMailCOntextualisationDIScovery”) is a new project that will build on Contextualizing Email Archives and the ECOMDIST discovery prototype we developed.

The award (approximately $57,000) will fund tool development, testing and user experience analysis in 2022 and 2023.

Why email?

Emails are materially different from correspondence of the pre-digital age, but their significance as traces of the past is substantial, especially for organizations, where email is not only used as a form of correspondence but also as an informal mode of record keeping. We believe that the preservation of a meaningful, relatively complete email archive is one plausible pathway to supporting scholarly research on organizations. 

Our work focuses on how researchers will engage with such resources, having previously developed an AI-based discovery tool (ECOMDIST), which we used to explore a dotcom-era email archive [https://dotcomarchive.bristol.ac.uk/]. Our new project will bring this technology to researchers in management and organization history, one of the key scholarly use cases for large-scale email corpora, and see how it can best be developed to support a context-sensitive discovery process.

Going to AoM?

One of our first activities on the project will be a Professional Development Workshop (PDW) at this year’s Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management in Seattle [https://aom.org/events/annual-meeting]. Sponsored by the Management History (MH) division, Introducing the “digitally curious” to email archives for organizational history will:

  1. introduce “digitally curious” management scholars to the use of email collections as contexts for research;
  2. orient scholars to new tools for interacting with sample email collections, including EMCODIST; and 
  3. provide a forum for scholars to share and learn from each other about emerging best practices in the use of email as a context for research. 

The PDW will take place on Friday, August 5, from 2:00-4:00p PDT in a hybrid format with in-person and virtual participation supported. To allow participants to access the email tools and collections, pre-registration is required. If you would like to register or to learn more about the workshop and the project, please email Shubhangkar Girish Jain (shubhangkar.girishjain@marylandsmith.umd.edu).​

Launching the Dotcom-Archive website!

Our AHRC-funded project, Contextualizing Email Archives has recently finished and we are proud to share with you one of our major outputs: the Dotcom-Archive website!

Our new website tells the history of a Dotcom start-up company through its emails, opening a window into the first digital revolution. Our very own desktop assistant, Mr Gummy, guides you through four vignettes giving background information and directions. The vignettes deal with claims of the end of strategy in the Dotcom-era, burning through investor cash, trying to figure out how to make money from software and platform business models, and how to take a digital venture into international markets. These stories can be read on their own or used for teaching. 

The website is part of our wider AHRC-funded project. We believe emails are a valuable source of historical record, particularly for those wishing to understand the organizations of the digital era. Our project delivers two distinct outputs – the Dotcom-Archive website, and the EMCODIST search prototype that we used to create it.  

Stay tuned for updates, as we’re looking forward to announcing some more exciting plans on here soon. Until then, you can read more about our project in our open access publications: 

AI & Society

IEEE Big Data conference paper  

“Contextualising Email Archives” is a UK/US collaboration funded by UK Research and Innovation and led by the University of Bristol. Other partners are the National Archives (UK), Hagley Museum and Library (US), University of Maryland, and De Montfort University. The Dotcom-Archive website was developed by GreenHat Bristol and realised by ResearchIT Bristol.

Finding Light in Dark Archives (with AI) – recorded online presentation

We have another update on our AHRC-funded research project on Email Archives, as we presented our work with an excellent group of UK and Irish scholars and professionals focusing on AI & Archives.

For more information on AURA and their events follow this link.

AHRC funding for digital business archives research

I am really pleased to announce that, together with a team of investigators including Dr Adam Nix (De Montford University), Prof David Kirsch (University of Maryland and University of Oxford) and our heritage partners, The National Archives (UK) and the Hagley Museum & Library (USA), 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 our new project!

Historicizing the dot.com bubble and contextualizing email archives

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.