The internet’s immense potential for historical research poses equally large challenges. Emails from participants in historic events provide rare—and often unique—information and perspectives. However, two broad factors have affected emails as historical sources: acceptance and accessibility.
The first concern largely has been settled. When emailing became common in the 1980s, some academics disapproved of electronic sources, which are not easily verified and are unavailable to all but a tiny number of individuals. However, emails have since gained wider acceptance and frequently are the basis for source notes.
A typical archival footnote might run, “Webley Wombat collection, Boring Library, Box 2, Folder 1, correspondence with Lady Winona Winsome, 2 January 1919.”
In contrast, an electronic citation might state, “Email to author from LtCol John D. Cooper, USMCR, 10 November 1995.”
Emails have displaced letters as the most common form of written communication in the current day, but the difference is in the medium. Paper documents can be filed personally or archived where, presumably, they are available to researchers.
Some excellent historians, including prominent Naval Institute author Norman Polmar, note that emails are not much different than paper correspondence.
Email from Norman Polmar, April 26, 2023.
World War II naval historian Anthony Tully adds to an online discussion, “‘Ref. emails v. letters: concur that there’s little if any practical difference, since very (very) few will have access to either. I guess that’s where academics part with emails, though, because presumably a motivated researcher could ask for access to the paper.’
“But only if that author (or the spouse) went through the steps to not only preserve the letters, but put them where they could be referenced rather than thrown out over time. So again, the real gremlin seems to be whether the original researchers (on both sides of the correspondence) preserved what they wrote, and whether anyone knows if they did. In this one sense, I almost think email might be preferable since known providers and hosts, etc., might over time be more ‘recoverable cold’ than no preservation efforts at all, versus letters that never got reproduced.
“Jon Parshall named another point—correspondence cites that are more a case of being polite and acknowledging, rather than potentially referencing something no one can ever see.
“Definitely a conundrum either way. A good rule of thumb is that if a decisive fact comes only from correspondence—quote enough of it to serve its point.”
FN Email with Anthony Tully, April 24, 2023.
What happens to emails when the recipient passes away? Hundreds of rare-to-unique messages may remain locked in the emailer’s account. Access would require providing the password to selected researchers. That is one solution, but what about the decedent’s thousands of other private messages, some of which surely will not be history related? (“Jim, you’re my executor and best friend, and the first thing you should do is scrub my computer.”)
Let us assume that a researcher leaves instructions for his or her heirs or executor to allow designated colleagues to view one or more email accounts. Presumably, access would be limited to folders or files of particular relevance to the individuals involved. However, that would be difficult to enforce and assumes everyone would operate on the honor system. Deleting all folders with potentially sensitive content is an unlikely option, both for personal and professional-financial reasons.
Another factor is the large to huge volume of relevant messages. My email files for most history topics were organized 20 years ago, including earlier messages. The naval folder dates from 2003. World War II’s Asia-Pacific theater in 2005; World War II Europe and the Mediterranean in 2006. Korean War and Vietnam from 2005. My folders for broad history, generic aviation, and World War I (up to World War II) date from 2009.
Here is just one example of rare comments on email:
In 2012 I asked some P-51 pilots about the Mustang’s handling characteristics. One, who made ace in P-51s but preferred the P-38 (another worthy subject), replied, “We made several field modifications such as a fifteen-pound weight on the bottom of the stick to help keep it in the center when making high G maneuvers.”
FN William H. Allen June 20, 2012.
As far as I can determine, that information has never appeared in print.
The ultimate option for preserving emails is probably copying a subject folder (Midway, U-boats, Navy Humor, etc.) and transferring it intact to the user’s computer desktop for further handling or transmission. Internet technicians confirm that the process is common in the corporate world when large amounts of information need to be transferred efficiently. The method is more difficult for individuals, but the advantages are apparent—preserving a subject file intact rather than scrolling through hundreds of individual messages.1
The First Draft
Just as newspapers are “the first draft of history,” so are emails describing current events. Messages from Iraq and Afghanistan featured heavily in my contemporary study, What We Need: Extravagance and Shortages in America’s Military (Zenith Press, 2007). Those comments will remain relevant to long-term studies of U.S. involvement in both areas as well as other subjects. Researchers sorting through messages of more recent origin run the risk of discarding information that could become of historic interest. Researchers should consider this when reviewing email files, whether the subjects are of immediate interest or not.
Aside from rare first-person accounts, emails often contain links to web sites with esoteric but valuable information. Depending upon how search parameters are phrased, those links may or may not appear again. Of course, some sites result in dead ends, but the prospect of rare sources hidden in long-ago emails could make the effort worthwhile.
When original posters (OPs) group similar website addresses in properly labeled messages, an enormous amount of time can be saved rather than searching for those sources individually.
A recent emailer lumped dozens of World War II forum threads in three messages, each arranged by broad subject within the forum’s yearly postings. The ease with which the topics were identified enhanced usability with sections for the European-Mediterranean Theater; Asia-Pacific Theaters; and generic topics. For instance, aircrew survivability in bailing out of allied bombers was largely European Theater of Operations but also addressed U.S. and Royal Air Force data specifically.
Naturally, electronic media extends to official sources. An Air Force civilian historian explains:
“We shifted to digital histories—including photos—several years ago and yes, most of us have concerns about how long the digital media will survive, particularly following an EMP attack or similar. As a backup, most of our history offices and the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB [Air Force Base] are required to have hard copies of all histories. There was actually a battle over that when Air Force Historical Research Agency acquired its massive, high-speed scanning equipment; some in the Air Force said, ‘Good, now we can throw out all of that paper and free up some space.’ Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.”
FN Email from Mark Morgan, April 27, 2023.
Photos and Imagery
Apart from message texts, scanned and duplicated images also are prominent email assets. The most valuable probably are rare or unpublished photos from private collections that are unavailable from archives. Online researchers certainly recognize the wisdom of copying photos or documents to backup media.
Our Air Force historian asks,
“Are photo prints also maintained as a backup? For the most part, not for the annual histories. For example, I typically load 50–60 ops-related photos in each annual command history (no ‘we deliver the pizza’ shots!). The images are incorporated in the hard copy of the history, imbedded in a Word doc. The older histories invariably incorporated actual photo prints in a protective sleeve.
“All of us at wing and upper levels have photos in our archives (more formally, repositories) that are catalogued. I've stumbled across a lot of old ATC/MATS/MAC [Air Traffic Control/Military Air Transport Service/Military Airlift Command] photos that are outstanding . . . in fact, I've spent the past 18 years in this office working my way through the photo archives improving the online finding aids with more descriptive detail, i.e., something better than ‘MATS aircraft on the ramp at Kuala Lumpur.’”
“As to the question of email, it’s true: emails have pretty much replaced written-typed communications, and we rely on them as primary sources, along with memos, instructions, regs, CONOPS [concept of operations], briefings, etc. We do have a couple of tons of ATC/MATS/MAC’s hard copy message traffic, memos and the like, and those materials are invaluable.”
FN Email from Mark Morgan, April 27, 2023.2
Some online archives with historic images rotate desirable illustrations or remove them outright, for various reason. An example is the once excellent National Museum of the Air Force (NMUSAF) website’s imagery section with a wide variety of subjects, including color photos. But several years ago, to quote one researcher, “The PC police scrubbed the NMUSAF photos for reasons nobody seems to know.” The private historian noted that the only photo of then-Colonel Paul Tibbets was posed with some Women Airforce Service Pilots whom he qualified on the B-29 Superfortress. There are no photos of either atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
The National Museum of Naval Aviation’s Buehler Library has obtained large photo collections with most images available in low, medium, or high resolution. But the site’s photo search has been unavailable for some years now, although the museum’s website is being updated following the COVID-19 pandemic interregnum.
The lesson from Dayton and Pensacola: copy any images of potential interest while they are available and email them to oneself and/or colleagues.
Identifying Subjects: Headers
One of the enduring problems with emails is headers. A great deal of valuable material is contained in messages titled, “Have you seen this?” or “I didn’t know.” A colleague and I addressed the situation several years ago, trying to sort through scores of emails from a mutual friend who knew just about everything worth knowing about rifle shooting. But our source was cyberly garrulous, and wandered from one intriguing subject to another, requiring editing many headers. I have whimsically said that I encountered the situation on a World War I aviation forum, wherein a thread on Who Killed The Red Baron (WKTRB became common shorthand) might morph into alligator wrestling. And that is not as far-fetched as it might seem.
Aside from renaming headers, the challenge in topically sorting emails is complicated by multiple subjects within one message. A message titled “USS Yorktown info” could refer to CV-5 or CV-10. If the former, the content could cover anything from the ship’s commissioning in 1937 to sinking at Midway five years later. If the latter, the operative period is 1943 until today, as “The Fighting Lady” remains a museum ship near Charleston, South Carolina.
Because email discussions so often wander off the original subject, “rebranding” can be helpful. An example: a thread begun as “Fighter drop tanks” might be retitled “Was Fighter Drop Tanks/now German Fuel Production.” Or cut and paste the new discussion for resending under a relevant title.
Thus, emailers can save current and future readers considerable time and effort simply by making headers as informative as possible.
To Print or Not to Print
Any researcher certainly will endorse the preference for searchable texts. That is one benefit of accessing original messages on the recipient’s email account. Perhaps a devoted researcher might forward messages from the original folder while amending obscure headers for storage in a dedicated email folder. But again, the requisite time and effort would be considerable.
One method of preserving emails for future access is printing and placing them in an accessible archive. The process might be workable for limited subjects, but otherwise quickly becomes an enormous task. Printing my aviation and naval files would run hundreds of single-space pages.
An option preferable to printing hard copies might involve cutting and pasting original messages to a separate text file, but the task of collating and labeling the messages remains enormous. If a researcher accepted the chore, it would probably require years of effort.
There are a few other options.
Three years ago, I donated more than 500 cubic feet of material to the USS Midway archive because one of my erstwhile Tailhook colleagues was closely involved with the CV-41 museum. The plan is/was to scan all the correspondence and maybe the documents, eventually making them available for researchers. Some of the material originated in emails that I printed. A few were so ancient that the texts were in dot matrix from an archive’s emails in the 1980s. But there it was—information that otherwise might have been lost.
And preserving that information, after all, is the goal.
1. For Microsoft accounts, Windows Outlook has the potential to export email files as PDFs. Consulted Shorter Circuit Internet, Phoenix, Arizona, 13 May 2023.
2. ATC/MATS/MAC is the previous Air Transport Command and Military Air Transport Service, plus the current Military Airlift Command.