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Archiving email of any form is an exercise involving file formats, the flexibility of your email program, and even a prediction about the future.

I have 400 emails with romantic words and memories. Wish I wrote these love letters the old fashion way because now the computer is getting old and needs to be replaced. Is there a way (other than copy/paste) to get the email text into a document? The computer is old, no USB, windows 2000.

You raise a very good scenario around data retention, file formats, computer upgrades and the like.

Let's face it, it's often not only love that needs preserving.

You didn't tell me what email program you use. Some of what I'm going to suggest will be easier in some mail programs than other.

But here's what I would do: "print" those letters to PDF, and then copy them to another computer, or better yet, archive them by burning them to a CD.

First, if you don't already have it, I'd grab a copy of the free, open source PDF Creator. This installs a printer driver that, when you print to it, creates a PDF of whatever it is you're printing. It's extremely useful and in fact, in a move to reduce paper consumption, is my default printer.

"The reason I recommend PDF format is ... that I believe that support for viewing PDF files will be with us for many, many years."

Now, in your email program, just print one of your emails. The result will be a PDF of that message.

In order to avoid having to do this 400 times, your email program may be able to help you, if it supports what I'll call "multi-select printing". The concept is this: while looking at the list of messages in your inbox, you click on the line representing the first message, and then you CTRL+click (hold down the CTRL key while clicking) on another. Both are selected. You keep CTRL+clicking until you've selected all the messages that you want to print. Then invoke your mail program's print function, and see what happens. In Outlook, for example, this resulted in a single printout of all the selected messages. Sadly, in Thunderbird, this resulted in a separate printout for each message. In other mail programs this approach may not work at all, but it's worth a try. (Imagine my surprise when I discovered that MSN Live Hotmail does this properly - though there you use the checkboxes to select messages and then use Hotmail's print function.)

The reason I recommend PDF format is simply because it has become so ubiquitous and so many professions are now relying on it, that I believe that support for viewing PDF files will be with us for many, many years. The same is not necessarily true for whatever storage format your email program happens to use. Will computers 25 years from now still have software that can read Outlook Express mail folders? Given that computers today often have trouble with it, I suspect not ... or at least not easily.

Once you've created the PDF(s), I would then transfer them to a new computer, and of course back them up. Ideally I'd burn them to CD and keep that, or a couple of copies of that, in a safe place.

If the PDF approach doesn't appeal to you, there are other approaches.

Copy/Paste, as you say, is an alternative, but a slow one. You could, one by one, copy the letters to another document, perhaps Microsoft Word, and then save that.

Another approach is to see what alternatives your email program provides in the way of "Save As...". You may be able to simply save each message to disk in standard format. In the best of all worlds, you may even be able to use that multi-select method mentioned above to actually "Save As..." multiple messages into a single file. (Microsoft Outlook would do this, Thunderbird would not, your email program may or may not.) Particularly, if you can save multiple messages into a single file, it's possible that you might then be able to open that file in a word processor to clean out unnecessary information like email headers that might well be present.

Finally, one alternative for the brave. And I'll openly admit this is a hack (geek speak for a solution that might work, but uses techniques that might be considered extremely inelegant and just not pretty). In some mail programs the actual storage file used for the mail folder may be enough. For example Thunderbird stores email in plain text files (it's one reason I chose Thunderbird). Make a copy of your inbox folder - never open the official copy in anything other than the mail program that created it - and open it in notepad, or Word or whatever you like, and you'll find all your email in a single file. Naturally, not all email programs work this way; Outlook and Outlook Express do not, Thunderbird and Eudora do, and of course this doesn't even apply to web-based email services where the email is stored on a remote server.

But in your shoes, it's a hack I'd try as well.

As you can tell, how easy this get depends a lot on the abilities of your email program. Given the importance of what it is you're wanting to save, I think a little experimentation might be called for to figure out the approach that works best for you.

Article C3400 - May 31, 2008 « »

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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?

Chris Buechler
May 31, 2008 6:09 PM

One of the things I recently did for my wife with some similar emails is added her Gmail account with IMAP in her Outlook (where they were kept) and copied them to a label/folder in her Gmail. Exported the originals to a PST file, which I have backed up locally and offsite. PST files are so common that they should be readable for a very long time, if not indefinitely (at least for our lifetimes). Having another copy with Google helps.

June 3, 2008 8:40 AM

I downloaded PDF Creator after reading one of Leo's suggestions and love it. It is great for archiving any text document that you would like to keep a digital copy of for future reference. I often use it for web pages that obviously won't last forever or may get moved making the URL useless. Although I am an advanced computer user and could manage all of Leo's suggestions in this case, even an amateur should be able to use PDF Creator. Sometimes the simplest solution is the best! Leo, PDF Creator continues to be a great suggestion. In this case, saving as text files would also work but if the document you want to save has any formatting you will lose the original layout and formatting - only the text will remain.

June 3, 2008 9:13 AM

Another free PDF creator is PDF ReDirect.
The user interface is quite simple and it makes it a snap to print anything to a .pdf file.

Larry Anderson
June 3, 2008 1:51 PM

If using Outlook Express try this:
Outlook Express, File-Save AS...
Change the default file extension from .eml to .txt in the drop-down list.

Text files will always be able to be read.

If you want to use .pdf files, another good PDF Creator program is Primo Free PDF which allows you to choose a smaller file size if the file is only going to be viewed rather than printed. Important feature if archiving files this way.

Richard L. Broberg
June 3, 2008 5:15 PM

Everybody comes up with such complex solutions to easy problems.
1. When you buy a new computer, put the old PC on you network as a backup PC. It’s really not that hard to set up a network. HINT: if the network suddenly stops working, replace the CAT-5 cable first.
2. To back up email, just open the network and drag and drop the email into the destination folder. It even keeps the envelope icon. You can drag and drop more than one at a time.
3. Keep all your data on a slave drive. Put only the OS and apps on the C drive.
4. When you drag and drop the email to a different logical drive it automatically COPIES it. You will see a little “+” on the email icon as you are dragging and dropping it.
5. I have not had a lot of luck with “save as”. I lose pictures in my Outlook 2000 when I save an email using “save as”. When I drag and drop I don’t loose the photos.
6. All the above works for Outlook.

Win Bennett
June 3, 2008 8:26 PM

re your section on saving the inbox dbx files from the stores folder in Outlook Express. There is a program called Mail Navigator, which allows you to read saved dbx files... found here.

Gord Campbell
June 3, 2008 9:13 PM

I have installed Thunderbird and imported my message folders from Outlook Express, just to get them into a manageable format. It was very easy.

Frank Bridgland
June 5, 2008 2:07 AM

set up email client program to access imap account and drag drop messages wanted to new imap account (this asumes current user can set up new email acount with new name) Have just transferred complete OE6 pop3 messages for wife to her new imap account. Of course imap servers allow you to read from anywhere with about any email prog.

Peter Gilbert
June 5, 2008 3:37 PM

Please Note: the FREE analogy to the MS Office Suite
at has a BUILT IN PDF creation
function. The current version "reads" up to
Word 2003. The (new) OpenOffic 3 (in Beta Test)
reads MS word 2007 files.

Dan Warrener
June 8, 2008 12:21 AM

Wouldn't it be nice if the Microsoft Office suite could read and write PDF files. That would get you more sales...hear that Microsoft?!

Nice article Leo, keep up the great work :)

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