Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Email Backup

About a week ago, Charter Communications accidentally deleted several thousand customer email accounts - content irretreviable. Sally Jacobs of The Practical Archivist posted a reminder to back-up your emails.

Back in 2004, when Google's Gmail was still in its 'invite' stage, I managed to snag what was then a rare invite. I fell in love with it. Being able to access my email from anywhere is extremely useful, and Gmail was a lot more user friendly than other webmails I had tried in the past. Soon I had all my email addresses (I have a few) forwarded to my Gmail account, and I haven't stored emails on my home computer since.

My rationalization was that my email is actually safer on Google's servers than my own. Despite whether or not what happened at Charter could happen at Google I still believe this to be the case. (There may be more backup protocols at Google now than there were at Charter, as this did happen at Google a year ago on a much smaller scale - 60 accounts were lost. But for those 60 people, it was just as much of a loss as it was for the 14,000 Charter customers.) Computer crashes on personal home computers happen more often than major email providers accidentally delete accounts.

While almost everyone backs up their photographs, and other important documents, how many people actually make a backup to Data CD, Data DVD, or an external hard drive of their email? What happens when your computer crashes? (Not if. Computers are expensive, and lots of people use a computer until the day it irrevocably crashes.) You may feel less safe since you're not in control, but I still feel email saved on an external server is safer than on a home computer.

But...better yet...would be having it stored *both* places. At home and on a webserver somewhere. Can this be accomplished easily? Yes. Why am I not doing it? Sally's post has led me to question that, and it may change soon. How is it done? There are two rather easy methods available at Gmail, and at least one of them is usually available on other webmail systems. Pop3 and IMAP. (Pop3 being the more common.)


Those who are downloading their email to their computer are already familiar with Pop3. It's how you set up your Outlook, Netscape, Apple Mail, Eudora, or whatever email client you use. In Gmail's settings you can set it up so that you download your email like you have been. But you can check a box that says 'keep a copy on Gmail.' (see below - click to enlarge)

That will save a copy of all incoming mail on Google's servers. To save a copy of outgoing mail, if you send it via gmail and not from your home computer's application, you'd have to cc or blind cc yourself so that you receive it as incoming mail.

Everything you are doing now by receiving mail at home on your home computer wouldn't change. You'd just have a stored copy on the web you could access at any time.


Setting up IMap makes your home computer's email and your Gmail account appear to be synched mirrors of each other. When you do something at one, it happens at the other. Move a message to a folder, receive a message, doesn't matter. Works with other email devices too.

I set it up with my Apple Mail program, and here's what the window looks like:

If you have labels in your Gmail account, they will appear as separate folders. If an email message has multiple labels, it will appear in multiple folders.

So what about deleting messages? What happens if you delete a message at home accidentally?

I tried to do this. In Apple Mail I went to the "All Mail" and deleted a message. It looked like it disappeared. I went to a different folder, returned to "All Mail" and the accounts resynched and the email appeared again. I had to move the mail I wanted to delete to the "Bin" folder for it to stay. Logging into my Gmail account the deleted msg is in the trash bin. Another message I had just clicked "delete" while in "All Mail", is still in the inbox, but has the label "deleted message" indicating that I had tried to do so. Once in the bin (on Apple Mail, or WebGmail) clicking 'delete' permanently deletes. But there are enough steps here that it isn't going to happen accidentally.

What would happen with a personal computer crash/Google crash?

This is why I used the phrase 'appear to be synched mirrors of each other' above. What's really happening is that the mail is being stored on Google's servers, and your home computer is accessing that. With constant DSL/Cable connections this works. But its not on your computer -- unless you manually move emails you want to save to your hard drive to a non-Imapped folder. Which is what the "Saved Messages" folder is for in the image above.

If you know you want a copy of every email on your home computer, you probably will want to use Pop3. (Including every spam, every joke Cousin Fred sends, etc etc). Imap makes it easy though to move individual emails you want to save to your home folders.

You can combine the two. Receive all email at home through Pop3 on your Mail application. Make sure a copy is stored in your Gmail account. If the account is also IMapped, you can view all the messages in your online sent folder. If you aren't ccing yourself when you send messages from gmail, they won't be on your computer, but that limits the number of messages you need to manually move to a saved folder.

Hopefully this isn't too confusing. Everything in this post has assumed you are using Gmail and Apple Mail. However, Gmail help menus have instructions for setting up Pop3 and IMap for several email applications, and it should probably work similarly. If you are using Hotmail, Yahoo, or another web-based email service they probably have help menus as well.

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