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Backing up online email is important, and easily done using the IMAP email protocol to download to an email program on your home computer.

I've a lot of old AOL emails saved in various folders on the web - the Cloud. For reasons you stated many times, I would like to back these up. Do you know of any way I could do this en masse, in other words, in one, big save? I know I can and should do them one at a time but I'm hoping you might know of a trick.

In this excerpt from Answercast #84 I look at a way to backup online email using an email client and IMAP on your local PC.

Backing up online email?

Actually I do and it turns out, from my little bit of research, that AOL probably supports this trick.

Here's what you do: you get yourself a desktop email program like Thunderbird, or Outlook, or any of a number of others.

Download using IMAP

Make sure that whichever one you choose supports the IMAP email protocol. That allows you to connect your desktop email program to your email server in a way that preserves things like folders.

So what you end up doing is: you install and configure your desktop email program on a PC (I'll use Thunderbird as my example), and configure it to access your AOL email account using IMAP.

Once you do so, it should begin downloading all of your AOL email. It may take awhile - depending on how much email you have, and how fast your internet connection is - but the bottom line is that it will make a copy of the email on to your PC.

That's one backup.

Your regular backup schedule

Now, of course, you are backing up your PC on a regular basis as well. So you now get a second backup - by virtue of however you're backing up your PC.

That's the technique I actually recommend for backing up almost any online, web-based, or Cloud-based email account that supports the IMAP protocol.

In fact, it's what I do myself. I have a machine in my basement and one of the things that it does is that it runs Thunderbird 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's connected to my email accounts, it's connected to my wife's email accounts, and what it does is it downloads all of the email as it comes in to that PC.

You can still work online

I never actually access it that way. I tend to use the web interface for most of what I need. But if I ever need to find a message that I can't find online, or if I lose my internet connectivity for some reason, I've got it there.

And yes, if I end up accidentally deleting something in the Cloud - IMAP will reflect that deletion to the PC. That's why I also point out that you have a second backup; the backup you're making of your PC presumably every night, once a week, however often you do it.

That backup you're making then will presumably have the backups of your mail folders before that delete happens, or you would go back to a backup copy that happened before that mail was deleted.

Either way, you have access to your email on your desktop - in your desktop's backup programs - in addition to the Cloud.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6208 - January 2, 2013 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

January 4, 2013 3:01 PM

I think backing up AOL mail is an overkill. I use AOL mail since many years and never lost a single piece of mail. AOL backs it up for me and they do a much better job than I could ever do.

Actually for major services the bigger reason to back up your email is not lack of backup by the service, by account hacking. If your account is hacked you may loose access to the contents permanently, and even if you do regain access the hacker may have deleted the email, which most services will NOT help you recover. Email account hacking is on the rise.

Kenneth Hedden Sr
January 6, 2013 1:36 PM

Hi Leo,
You peaked my interest with the statement that you have a computer in your basement; and that one of the things is does is run Thunderbird 7-24-365. What else is it doing, is it acting as a server?

Could you elaborate on this in greater detail, maybe in another piece?

It's actually a machine that used to be my old desktop, now repurposed. It's running Ubuntu, and in addition to running Thunderbird it also runs a database server (mysql) for some local things I do, and acts as a local DNS server and cache for my home network. I also have a couple of extra/spare hard disks attached to it for additional backup storage. The other machines in my basement include a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device with 3TB of disk space, and an older PC running Windows 7 whose primary purpose is to backup the NAS, and download podcasts that my wife and I listen to.

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