UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Decommissioning / Mothballing Mailing Lists

Posted by Brian Kelly on 1 Feb 2010

The Context

In response to my recent post about usage of JISCMail lists Nicole Harris pointed out some evidence of its popularity. It is clear that although in some sectors there may have been a migration to a diversity of communication and collaboration tools, other sectors are still well-served by email lists.  This is particularly true of museums and public libraries, as I know from experience, being a member of the well-used MCG and lis-pub-libs JISCMail lists.

The Evidence

But what should be done for the lists which are no longer being used to any significant extent?  And following Nicole’s links to statistics on the use of JISCMail I was very interested to see the statistics on the numbers of messages on lists.

As can be seen from the accompanying image (taken from the JISC’s Monitoring Unit Web site), the majority of lists appear to have had zero messages posted in the given time period and the numbers of such lists has been growing. The number of very active lists, with over 100 messages, is in comparison, tiny. Of course these lists must be very active as the overall amount of traffic on the lists is still growing.

Although these figures are very surprising they do reflect my findings when I looked at the various lists that I was still subscribed to. For example here are two lists which I had forgotten about:

ADVSERV-CANDM (Advisory Services and Comms and Marketing mailing list)
A list is for discussion and dissemination between Advisory Services and Communication and Marketing) .
Only a handful of posts between July 2004 and November 2005.

List to discuss technical issues relating to the establishment of the Distributed National Electronic Resource. These issues should particularly relate to inter-operability matters.
Posts between August 1999 and October 2004.

In addition to these lists which I am still subscribed to I discovered there are a number of list which I own which I had forgotten about.  Here are another two examples:

HELPS (Historic Environment List For Projects and Societies) – 180 Subscribers
This list is designed to promote liaison between those recording all aspects of the historic environment, whether as part of a national project, a specialist interest group or locally based society. The list is intended for members to share experiences for the benefit of others, exchange information and provide mutual support.
Discussions in 2004 and only occasional publicity posting since, with last in June 2007 and July 2008.

INTEROP-CULTURE – 70 subscribers
The mailing list of the international group involved in shaping Interoperable Digital Cultural Content Creation Strategies.
One post in April 2006 but prior to that used from July 2001 to November 2004.

What is to be Done?

Does the existence of many moribund lists matter? This is a question which is very pertinent to UKOLN activities on behalf of the cultural heritage sector in providing advice on digital preservation issues.  The need to make plans for the  decommissioning services was highlighted by Chris Sexton, UCISA chair, at a recent UCISA meeting in which, as she described in her blogWe are all going to be faced with spending less, doing more with less, and deciding what we can stop doing“.

Deciding which lists no longer have a useful purpose can be helpful to a number of groups. Users who find the mailing lists archives a potentially valuable resource may find that the search interface becomes useable if the numbers of lists is decreased (there is no global search of the mailing lists and as Google is blocked from the archives searching selected mailing lists is a very time-consuming process). Deleting such lists may also help new users who are seeking relevant lists to join – at present statistically they are likely to join a moribund list is they make their selection based on the list descriptions. The JISCMail team may well find the systems management easier if unwanted content is deleted, thus potentially freeing technical expertise which can be used to enhance other aspects of the service.

Policies and Processes For Decommissioning and Mothballing Lists

How should a list owner go about deleting unused lists? And aren’t there dangers that deleting the contents of lists which may have been used to influence the research process or provide possibly valuable historical insights on the content area covered by the list would be regarded as a mistake by future generations?

If would be a mistake, however, to regard digital preservation to simply mean that digital resources should be kept forever. An important role for those involved in preservation activities is the selection of resources which are felt to be worthy of preservation and the deletion of the rest – and if such deletion activities is ignored there may be significant costs in its ongoing maintenance.

I’m not aware of guidance for list owners on how they should go about developing policies for mailing lists and associated procedures for implementing such policies. They only  relevant information I could find on the JISCMail Web site was a page on renaming or deleting JISMail lists. This page allows a list owner to give the name of the list to be deleted and request a ZIP file containing the archives, files and list header.

No advice is provided, however, to assist list owners who may be considering deleting lists. It would clearly be inappropriate for a list owner to delete a still-popular list. But at what stage might it be felt that a list should be considered for deletion?  Do posters of messages to the list have any say in the matter (they own the copyright of their messages)? And who should take responsibility for consideration of the long-term importance of messages posted to the list?

In a bottom-up approach to attempting to answer such questions I will describe my thoughts on the DNER-TECH and INTEROP-CULTURE lists.

A summary of these lists is given below.

Date created: August 1999
List owner: Brian Kelly, UKOLN (although I was initially unaware of this as it used a non-standard variant of my email address)
Status: Open access to archives
Summary of purpose of list, ownership, etc: To discuss technical issues related to the DNER ( Distributed National Electronic Resource).
No. of subscribers: 50 (including 5 variants of my email address!)
Period of popularity: Small number of posts (2-3/month? from 1999-2002.
Period of few and ‘non-essential’ posts (non-essential may include announcements, posts sent to multiple lists, etc.): Last discussion took place in July 2003.
Stakeholder communities and individuals: Software developers from JISC eLib and subsequent DNER (later renamed IE) programme; Chris Rusbridge? (eLib programme director); Rachel Bruce: (JISC); UKOLN.
Likelihood of messages being cited in research papers: Unlikely.
Other issues: –
Risks: Closure of this list would have no adverse effect. Deletion of the contents of the list would be unlikely to have an adverse effect, especially in light of the (now-dated) technical content of the list.

Date created: July 2001
List owners: Brian Kelly and Rosemary Russell, UKOLN
Status: Login required to view archives
Summary of purpose of list, ownership, etc: Set up by staff in UKOLN
No. of subscribers: 70
Period of popularity: Last posts in November 2004 and April 2006.
Period of few and ‘non-essential’ posts (non-essential may include announcements, posts sent to multiple lists, etc.): List appears to have been announcements only.
Stakeholder communities and individuals: Appears to have been set up for policy makers in cultural heritage organisations.
Likelihood of messages being cited in research papers or contain ‘significant’ content: Very low.
Other issues: Significant number of overseas subscribers.
Risks:  Closure of this list would have an adverse effect. Deletion of the contents of the list would be unlikely to have an adverse effect. However in light of the international aspect of the list it would be prudent to ensure stakeholders have the opportunity to give their views.

Next Steps

Carry out this research proved interesting in observing how these mailing lists failed to live up to their initial expectations.  but what to do next?  Some may feel that as the costs of the disk storage are trivial there is no need to do anything. However my view is that managed curation of such digital resources is needed.  So I feel that I should send an email to these two lists announcing my intention to delete these lists based on my review of the contents and my assessment of the risks of deleting the content. And since I no longer have an interest in the archives if anyone wishes to maintain the content they will be welcome to take on ownership of the lists.

But before taking this step I thought I would seek others views on these proposals. What do you think should be done?

[Note this post has been updated with a updated chart of JISCMail usage statistics. You can
view the original statistics published in the post which covered the period 2003-2007.]

8 Responses to “Decommissioning / Mothballing Mailing Lists”

  1. Christopher Gutteridge said

    The ECS Web Team has spent some time considering what to mothball, and what to “fossilise”. (Fossilise= keep the shell of the data on the web, but turn off dynamic content)

    Mailing lists generally cost nothing to maintain, if they have no non-standard features, and are just sitting on a server with active lists.

    Anything with a public URL is a long term issue, as it may be cited or otherwise linked.

    • Christopher Gutteridge said

      Wiki’s and blogs are far more of a long term issue, as are projects which register, put a load of useful data there, then the DNS reg. expires.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brian Kelly, Brian Kelly and Ben Baker, Brian Kelly, UKOLN. Brian Kelly, UKOLN said: Decommissioning / Mothballing Mailing Lists: The Context In response to my recent post about usage of JISCMail lis… […]

  3. Who cares?

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by briankelly: Blog post on processes for Decommissioning/Mothballing unused JISCMail lists published:

  5. […] Decommissioning / Mothballing Mailing Lists […]

  6. […] in January 2010 I wrote a post on Decommissioning / Mothballing Mailing Lists in which I discussed policies and processes for decommissioning and mothballing […]

  7. […] the other hand, revisiting my post on “Decommissioning / Mothballing Mailing Lists” the trends showing the numbers of messages posted to lists seem to clearly indicate the […]

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