– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

spam spam spam not lovely spam

Q: I’ve emailed you at least once in the past month and haven’t had a reply.

A: (searches every email sent or received ever) This is the first time I’ve heard from you. Could you forward me a copy of your previous message?

Q: Here it is:

From: enquirer@email.com
Sent: date
To: archivist [at] balliol.ox.ac.uk
Subject: Hello

Hello,

…..

A: (twigs, checks junk mail) Aha, it disappeared into the spam box because of the vague subject  line – lots of spam and e-swindles are titled ‘Hello my friend’ etc. Enquiries titled e.g. ‘I need your help’, ‘Looking for a relative’ or ‘Urgent response required’, though reasonable in e.g. a family history research query, will have the same problem. Subject lines left blank? Bin. Exclamation marks? Bin. All caps in the subject line? Bin. Using red/green/purple text? Bin. Sending to lots of different email addresses at once? Bin.

It’s increasingly important these days to make your archives enquiry email look genuinely addressed to a particular person about something particular. Institutional addresses are bombarded daily with zillions of spam messages, not to mention things with malware and viruses attached. Firewalls and spam-detection levels are raised accordingly, usually by the institution’s IT department rather than individual users who do not normally have that kind of control, so it’s easier for messages to be automatically junked without the intended recipient ever seeing them. Due to the increasing volume, hardly anybody ever checks their spam boxes for possible genuine messages.

Best to use something short, clear and specific, e.g. ‘[College name] archives enquiry’ or similar. Using the name of the person you’re writing to in the salutation will also help lower the spam score.

If you are repeating a previous email enquiry that may have gone astray, include a copy of the first attempt, with headers (From, To, Date, Subject), in your next one. Email delivery and search functions aren’t perfect and do break down, and it may help, if not to find your first email, at least to let the archivist know when it was sent and what the original query was about.

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