The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will probably be the first to tell you that certain components of humanities-based philanthropy aren't particularly glamorous. Funding programs that support "intensive training in the analysis of textual artifacts," for example, may sound pretty dull—but that's partly the point. Mellon is the happy warrior methodically plugging away in humanities' quieter corners.
For further proof, we turn to recent news that Mellon and the Digital Preservation Coalition has announced the formation of a task force on Technical Approaches for Email Archives. The task force is charged with "assessing current frameworks, tools, and approaches being taken toward these critical historical sources."
Like much good philanthropy, Mellon's efforts aim to solve a distinct problem: the clumsy and unorganized nature of email correspondence.
"Personal correspondence has long served as an essential primary source for historians and scholars across many humanities and social science disciplines," Mellon notes. Yet "much of that correspondence is embodied by digital materials, and particularly emails, which have proven themselves far more difficult to gather and preserve in an accessible, approachable format."
In short, there are treasure troves of valuable academic and scholarly insights embedded in emails buried in data centers in far-flung locales. And while everyone acknowledges the inherent value of this information, there's no common framework for properly accessing and organizing it. "Email," according to Mellon, "has remained resistant to a variety of efforts at preservation and is currently not systematically acquired by most archives and libraries."
The task force on Technical Approaches for Email Archives plans to address this challenge by focusing on three key issues: (1) articulating this technical framework, (2) suggesting how existing tools fit within this framework, and (3) beginning to identify any missing elements.
Viewed through this lens, Mellon's partnership fits rather neatly with its other archival and digitization grants across the higher university space as of late. What's more, it also maps elegantly to Mellon's goals for liberal arts education, as recently articulated by Mellon VP Mariët Westermann. To that end, I'd argue that Mellon's task force partnership is less about the mundane reality of archiving emails and instead enriching humanities scholarship.
I'd also argue that there's a good email-related Hillary Clinton joke lurking somewhere in this post. But I consciously decided to avoid that temptation. It's time to let the healing begin.