E-mail Migration Blues
Picture a man of the 1980s. Or the 1880s. Or the 1780s. He keeps an active correspondence. Today he's getting new furniture for his study. He empties the drawers of his old desk and lines up the contents on the sideboard. He lifts the mail folders out of the file cabinet and stacks them on the floor along one wall. With the aid of some strong helper, he then gets rid of the old desk and file cabinet, and puts the new ones into place. Half an hour later he's working again. Everything's in place, not one old letter or draft lost. He can do this any number of times through his working years, and his papers will still be in order. Some of them will one day make an historian very happy.
My dad has an old HP laptop that sounds like a hair dryer. It runs Windows 2000 and is full of data from his years as a marketing expert with an electronics company. He's quit his job and must now return the computer to his former employer. Not because the asthmatic thing has any monetary value, but for reasons having to do with business secrets.
My dad has no interest in the company's business secrets, but there's a lot of other data on the machine that's useful to him. He's been moving stuff to his desktop machine with the aid of a 256 MB USB drive for the past few days. Now all that's left is his e-mail folders and address book. And he asked me to help him move the stuff.
I tried, but I couldn't. It's often enormously hard to migrate your e-mail from an old computer to a new one.
In my dad's case, the e-mail program Outlook on the laptop was able to export his mail folders and address book to a 160 MB whopper of a file called a PST or a Personal Folder File. And this file could be copied to the desktop machine. And there was a recent version of Outlook on it (though my dad runs Thunderbird at my suggestion). But between the Outlook version shipping with Windows 2000 and the current XP version, somebody apparently decided to change the PST file format. So I couldn't import the data into Outlook on the desktop machine.
Instead, I tried "repairing" the PST file with arcane software, and I tried copying the entire mail directory on the laptop (400 MB zipped) to the desktop machine over Dropload. Of course, my dad's former employer has seen to it that it's impossible to hook the machine up to the home network. And it has no CD burner.
But I don't think it's going to work. The situation is as if our man of the 1980s or 1880s or 1780s had all his old mail and drafts glued to his desk, so that every time he decided to get new furniture his business would suffer instant amnesia. And our digital "desks" age much faster than a good oaken writing desk.
Everybody knows that computers and software gets upgraded every few years. And there's been e-mail in most homes for a decade. By now, there really should be a standard file format for e-mail migration and easy-to-use functions for migration in the e-mail client software. Historians are going to hate the 1990s and 2000s, the brief era before every person has a Gmail-like lifelong central server account where their correspondence accumulates. Our correspondence just evaporates.
Update 31 August: To my surprise, I got it to work! Copied the entire half-gigabyte mail file via a DAV server (not Dropload) from the laptop to the desktop machine, renamed the existing mail file, gave its former name to the laptop file, and it worked for the mail folders. But not for the address book.
[More blog entries about e-mail, archives, history, computers; e-post, historia, datorer, arkiv.]