Pacific Internet - Ukiah, California

Archiving Email

Archiving Email

One fairly common request we get is to increase an email account's quota. Usually, this is due to a customer receiving an over–quota warning or running out of space. Many people have difficulty staying under quota because they want or need to maintain a large history of emails. The reasons vary from businesses who may need to keep records of communication for legal purposes to individuals who wouldn't throw paper letters from loved ones away either. Any reason you want to keep email is valid, but increasing account quotas is not a solution to the fundamental problem; you will eventually need more space if you continue to hoard your data.

Archiving is the proper long–term solution for needing to keep an ongoing, comprehensive record of communication. With a reasonable archiving strategy in place, you should be able to:

  1. Prevent your email account from going over–quota.
  2. Retain copies of your desired emails.
  3. Search those emails as you would any others.


There are some caveats to archiving email. First, you need to know the difference between POP3 and IMAP. If you are using POP3, you probably don't need to be looking at this page. If you are using POP3 and your account is over–quota, you have probably configured your mail client to never remove messages from the server. If you are using IMAP, or want to know more about archiving in general, continue on.

Another caveat regarding archives is your choice of mail client. The following example uses Thunderbird, but archiving email should be a pretty fundamental, routine task for any mail program. The example uses Thunderbird because it's free, and so available to everyone. Thunderbird is open-source, and so also available to anyone, with all the benefits of OSS. It is also very highly developed, well–maintained, and feature–rich (it's a Mozilla project, same as Firefox). That might sound like a plug, but the vast majority of our support is email–related and Thunderbird is hands–down the least buggy/problematic compared to others which shall not be named (*cough* Outlook *cough*). In fact, there are hardly ever problems at all—most support issues we do have with Thunderbird users tend to be caused by something else. So the recommendation is a practical one, in addition to a personally–biased, principled one. Anyway, as mentioned, any mail client should be able to do the basics, but you'll have to refer to your own program's documentation or search for help.

Archive Configuration

The first thing you'll need to do is configure your archive. There are many different archiving strategies and you should never assume the defaults are appropriate for you. Defaults are there to be a choice in the absence of any other; they are not intended to be (nor can they be) the best or most common choice.

First, consider the folder hierarchy shown below. Note the Inbox, Drafts, Sent, and Trash folders, which are all defaults. Additionally, there are two custom folders we have made: Convos and Recipes. Also note how the custom folders are on the same level as the Inbox. That is, they are not subfolders of the Inbox. It is entirely possible to have subfolders, there just aren't any in this example. Whether or not you have nested folders will weigh in on your archive's configuration, however.

View of folders.

Let's assume you want to archive the important conversations you have stored in Convos. The image below shows the messages from a conversation with a subject of Urgent Communication. Before we archive these messages, we'll make sure our archive settings are satisfactory.

View of folder contents.

There are many ways to get to your Account Settings; only one is shown below. Knowing how to get to your account settings is just something you have to be able to do.

View account settings.

Once the Account Settings are up, select Copies & Folders on the left. In the Message Archives section, there are a few important things to notice. First, notice how Keep message archives in: is checked. This enables archiving. If you uncheck this box, you won't be able to edit any archive–related settings because they won't have any effect anyway. Second, notice the choice between "Archives" Folder on: and Other:. If you choose "Archives" Folder on:, you will have a choice of accounts or Local Folders and Thunderbird will automatically make a folder named Archives there. If you choose Other, you can pick any folder you may have created beforehand. The last thing you should notice is the selection in the image below, namely, Local Folders. Since you are probably archiving to save space on the server, you want to choose Local Folders because that is on your machine. Next, we'll go to the Archive Options by clicking Archive options... and do the final configuration.

Copies & Folders settings.

Here, you have a choice of the folder structure Thunderbird will use when archiving. Notice how Thunderbird provides an example preview of the folder structure you have selected. In this example, we've selected Yearly archived folders. Archived messages will automatically be placed into the appropriate year's folder, where each year is a subfolder of Archives. Additionally, we've selected Keep existing folder structure of archived messages. This will preserve the names and structure of folders you have created in your email account. This is recommended.

You can just dump all of your messages into A single folder, but except for the most basic of setups, this is probably not what you want. The other option is Monthly archived folders, which creates further subfolders within the yearly directories.

Archive options.

Archiving Messages

Now that we've configured archiving to our tastes and needs, let's archive that important conversation. Archiving is very simple: Select the messages you want to archive, then choose Archive. As with viewing account settings, there are many ways to archive the selected messages; only one is shown below. Right–clicking the selected messages would be another.

Select messages to archive.

After we hit Archive, the messages no longer appear in their original location. They have been moved to the archive.

New archive folder.

Viewing the archive, we see our messages are there! Notice how they have not been changed in any way—they still have sender, subject, and date information, and can be read as normal. All that happened is Thunderbird moved them from their location on the server to a local folder on your computer. This frees up space on the server, and allows you retain and manage all of your mail in a single location. Be careful to understand single location is truer than you might think. If you check your email from multiple devices (which is likely if you are using IMAP), only the computer you downloaded the messages to will be able to see them now. Your other devices are still checking the server, and those messages have been moved off of the server. For this reason, it is probably wisest to pick a single machine, like a home or work computer, and always archive to it, treating it like a backup. Don't worry, if you ever get a new computer you can copy your archives over to it like nothing changed. Backups would be useless if that wasn't the case. Instructions on how to do so are beyond the scope of this article, however. We charge $100,000,000 per hour to do that kind of work, so don't ask. (Not that it's hard—it's really easy—but we don't do that kind of computer work here.)

The other thing you should notice is the directory structure of the archive on the left. You can see our yearly folder below the main archive folder. Below that, our Convos folder. Thunderbird automatically recreated the relevant directory structure from the email account underneath the yearly archive folder. Since Convos was a top–level folder (at the same level as Inbox, Trash, etc.), it's at the "top–level", underneath the yearly folder. If Convos were a subfolder of the Inbox, say, we would see Inbox underneath the yearly folder and Convos under it.

View archived messages.

Searching the Archive

Searching archives is no different than searching any other folder. If you couldn't search your archives to find that one message from 100 years ago when you purchased that nifty sweater but can't for the life of you remember the website you bought it from, all would most certainly be lost. To help you find another sweater, we'll demonstrate searching the archive, even though it isn't any different from searching the rest of your messages.

Again, there are many ways to pull up the search dialog. Only one is shown here (fun fact: there are actually two shown in the same image—think keyboard shortcut).

Search messages.

The first thing you do when searching for messages is select the folder you want to search. Choosing as specific a folder as you can be sure of is the best place to start—very large archives with lots of folders can take a long time to search. If you don't get your expected results, you can always broaden the search later. For illustrative purposes, we've simply selected the entire archive folder, Archives.

Choose search folder.

If you know the exact folder your message is in, searching is kind of pointless. Generally, you search when you only have a vague idea of where a message is, or no idea at all. For that reason, it's probably best to leave Search subfolders checked. You then specify your search criteria below. There are a lot of different criteria to search on, so find what works best. In our example, we're looking for a group of messages that we know had a subject of Urgent Communication. We use contains as a condition rather than is because we want to include possible replies in the results, which will have subjects that look like Re: Urgent Communication. The choice to Match all of the following and Match any of the following applies when using multiple criteria. Match all ... means that each and every criteria must match to get a result. Match any ... means if any one of the criteria match, you will get a result. Finally, hit Search. You can see we were successful below.

Search results.

That's it! You're an email archiving pro now! And you'll never go over your quota on our server again... ;)