Vol. XVI, No. 1
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Spring, 2003

Email File Formats: Trickier Than I Thought.

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

In the last issue of the CSA Newsletter there was a lengthy article about choosing software with an eye toward the file format used by any program under consideration (see "Who cares about file formats? All scholars should." Harrison Eiteljorg, II, CSA Newsletter XV.3 (Winter, 2003) http://csanet.org/newsletter/winter03/nlw0307.html). In that article I recommended Mozilla/Netscape© as an email program because the files are not only portable but can be read by a simple text editor. Some experiences I have had since writing that piece may be of further interest.

In the previous article, I said, "I can simply take the entire [Mozilla] email database directly from the MAC on which it rests to the CSA Linux machine and start working there." With hindsight, I can now see that my transfer of files from the MAC to the Linux machine was not a full test; I moved a major portion of the files, but not the entire data set, including the full Mozilla email file system. As the following will make clear, that transfer is more complex than the wording suggested.

I recently decided to make my principle email machine my MAC laptop so that, even while traveling, I would always have my full and complete email files with me. (I had also installed a home network so that I could use the laptop for email there, very handy when one is snowed in.) However, when I tried to move the entire email directory to the laptop, there was a significant problem. I did not then figure out what the problem was; so I finally gave up on Mozilla and tried Eudora (the free version). Unfortunately, it did not really import the Mozilla files as advertised. Many of the files were imported without being broken into individual messages properly. Therefore, I did not really have a useful email system with Eudora (and I will confess that I did not like the Eudora interface).

I went back to work with Mozilla and finally found ways to import the files in groups. What I did was not really difficult, but it did take time, and I suspect it would have been just frightening enough that many people would have stopped. (I had all the files properly backed up or I would have stopped as well.)

I recently upgraded my MAC laptop, and I needed to transfer the Mozilla files again. This time, I was able to do it with one simple transfer, but I had to make a few critical adjustments in the Mozilla files on the new computer to complete the task. The Mozilla program keeps an explicit reference to the location of each email account. That is, all the email I receive via my csanet.org account is not only stored in a specific location, the program requires the user to state that location in one of the set-up windows. Since the location is dependent upon the file structure of the primary computer, it may not be the same location used in the secondary computer. Making the move from one laptop to another (with different file structures), I was able to change the default file location for each of my email accounts when I set up Mozilla on the new computer and to gain immediate access to the files. So Mozilla does permit access to email files as one changes computers; it just requires a bit of care in making the transition.

Another somewhat contrary experience reminded me that file format is not everything, as I had acknowledged in the previous article. It is, however, worth noting.

At the recent meeting of the Society of American Archaeology I gave a poster presentation about using CAD for archaeological documentation. When talking about CAD with various people at the poster session, I found myself regularly pointing out two important virtues of AutoCAD© that outweigh the downside, having to use Autodesk's proprietary file format. Those virtues are not significant here. What is important is simply the notion that, in some cases, software capabilities are more important than file format. The real problem, of course, is knowing when the software features are worth what one must pay for them -- either in cash or in file format complexity.

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

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