Step 1: Know your Why
As always, start off by deciding what you want to achieve by doing this. What are you going to need your archive to do for you?
Do you want the peace of mind of knowing you have copies of working emails? If something goes wrong, or you switch email providers, you can restore your messages and carry on. If this is you, then you only need to make back-ups and can ignore Steps 2 and 4.
But perhaps you have important or special emails that you love and want to keep forever. Maybe you even hope the messages will outlive you. If this is you, then you need to take some extra steps to future-proof your stuff, and then also back it up.
Have a think about what your needs are, and decide which will best meet those needs: a back-up, or an archive.
If you are unclear on the difference, have a read of my article on Why Digital Archiving is NOT the Same as Backing Up.
The next steps will walk you through how to create a digital archive of your emails. If you only need back-ups, then concentrate on Steps 3 and 5.
Step 2: Declutter and Organise
Digital storage space isn't free.
And if you're storing tons of stuff you don't need, then it isn't even good value.
Take this opportunity to blast through your inbox. Sort things into folders if you want to refer to them again. This gives each email a label, which makes things a helluva lot easier down the line.
Anything you don't intend to read, unsubscribe from that list and/or delete the message.
100 bonus points if you hit #InboxZero!
The point of this is to make it absolutely clear what is your digital treasure, and what is not.
Step 3: Download your data
Go to "My Account".
Under "Personal Info and Privacy", select "Control your Content".
Here Google give you the option to "Create an archive with a copy of your data from Google products". Click on "Create Archive".
Select what you want to include.
If you just want to make a quick back up, then plump for downloading everything. But if you are creating an archive, then now is a good time to be selective.
Hit the big grey "Select None" button at the top, and scroll down the list. Only select the elements that are your personal digital treasure. For me, this would be Calendar and Mail. Maybe also Drive and Photos.
Be sure to click on the little dropdown arrow beside each element you select. This lets you double check that your download will include everything you need it to.
You can get pretty granular with this, which is where the labels from Step 2 come in handy.
Once you're happy, hit "Next".
The next step is to decide how you would like to receive your archive.
The default will be to create a .zip file, which is a good option. You can increase or decrease the max archive size if you think you will need to.
Choose your delivery method, and hit "Create Archive".
Depending on the quantity of data you are asking Google to process for you, this could take some time. Check the download has worked, and that everything is there that you expect.
Step 4: Future-Proofing
.zip files compress and encrypt your data so that you can send it from one device to another.
But it is not the best long-term storage solution for your data.
This is to do with transparency. Both compression and encryption are obstacles that make it harder for a machine to read the data. As technology moves on over time, these obstacles become bigger and bigger problems.
The more transparent your stuff is, the easier you make it for the super-robo-historians in the year 3018 to convert it to their format of choice.
If you only want back-ups for the short term, then there is no problem with keeping the compressed file. But if you want your data to be usable in the distant future, you want uncompressed and unencrypted files.
And yes, decompressing your archive will make it take up more storage space. That is why Step 2 was worthwhile, and why you were selective about which folders to download in Step 3.
The extracted files within your download will be MBOX files. This is a decent file format, because it is text based. It can be read by a wide range of text-processing software, as well as a fair number of email applications. So you are good to leave them as they are.
Step 5: Keep copies in separate locations
Aka - make back ups of your back up!
Keep several copies, and store them across various devices and the cloud.
If this as part of a bigger project to create your digital archive, then this step is easy. Add your emails to your Digital Archive, then your regular back-up strategy will sort them out.
How did you get on?
Well done you for reading this far. And doubly well done if you have managed to follow the instructions. I hope backing up your emails has brought you some peace of mind. Did you discover any old messages that you were happy to see again?
Just so you know, I write a new article every Tuesday to help you care for your digital treasures. If you would like me to send these to you in an email once a month, then feel free to drop me your email address. You will also get a copy of my FREE How to Start Your Digital Archive Workbook.
Thank you for reading, and I'd love to hear how you got on saving your emails.