28 February 2008

Creating Your Own Searchable, Custom Mailing List Archive, Part One

For the first part of this series, I am going to focus on an incredibly easy and functional way to create a searchable, custom mailing list archive using Gmail. This post will cover how to setup the archive, and in the next post we will be exploring using the mailing archive most effectively. I have a great appreciation for Gmail, not only in the robustness of its features, but also the fact that they offer functionally unlimited (and growing) storage space. And as a reminder, no, Google isn't paying me to do this. I am just a genealogist who is pleased with their tools, and believes they make me a better researcher. I feel like that is something worth sharing.

The setup of this archive is simple, and if you use mailing lists at all, you have probably come across the concepts in this article before. One important aspect to Gmail which is different from many email clients is that there is no "folder" construction to email organization. Instead, Gmail uses "labels". I personally found the transition away from folders to be somewhat awkward at first, but in reality these labels really expand your ability to find and organize the information in your emails, which is very important when dealing with the volume of information you would find in something like your customized mailing list archive. We'll cover labels more in-depth below, but for now let's say that "labels" are the "folders" of the Gmail world (even though they are much more!) and we'll be integrating labels with our filtering.

Before you start:

This posting assumes you are familiar with finding and subscribing to mailing lists. It also assumes you have at least a beginner's comfort with basic internet concepts like forms, email, etc. A Gmail account is necessary for this mailing list archive. You can sign up for a Gmail Account here.

The Steps

1. In this example, I am joining Rootsweb's County Roscommon Mailing List. (You can find hundreds [if not thousands] of mailing lists through Rootsweb here.) I send an email, through my Gmail account, following the directions, to IRL-ROSCOMMON-D-request@rootsweb.com. I am subscribing to the digest, because I like this more compact format.

My next step will be to create a filter that will handle the emails as they come in from the list. I click on the "Create a filter" link found at the top of the screen, just next to the "Search Mail" and "Search the Web" buttons:

2. The "Create a Filter" Tab appears. There are many ways in which you can filter your incoming mail. How you choose to filter the mail really depends upon how you envision yourself using your mailing list archive, and how you can use the filters and labels (more on those below) to your best advantage.

Since I want to keep the mail from each mailing list distinct, I want to filter the mail according to what mailing list it came from, and will eventually take advantage of this filter to assign a label to it. To begin creating the filter, I enter the ID of the mailing list (the part before the @ symbol, which is the "return address" of all digest emails from each mailing list) into the "From" field.

An alternative, and also very powerful filter could be set up using the "Has the Words" field just across from the "From" field. See more on that under "Side-tracking to Labels" below, for ways to use this field.

3. Next we choose the action we want Gmail to take whenever it identifies an email with the specifications we outlined above:

I want all mailing-list emails to skip my inbox and go straight to being archived, so I check the "Skip the Inbox" box. If you leave this box unchecked, all email will come into your inbox, and you will have to archive the messages manually. This is great if you want to read through all the messages as they come in, but if you subscribe to as many lists as I do (near one hundred), then manually archiving these messages can be cumbersome.

I also want to attach a label to all emails coming from my County Roscommon group, so I will check "Apply the label" box, and select "New label" from the drop-down menu.

4. The label box appears, and I enter the label I wish to append to each email from this mailing group:

Again, because I am organizing my emails according to mailing list group, I label these emails with the ID of the mailing list, thus making it easier for me to find it.

5. Once you hit "Okay" on the label creation box, you aren't done! Notice that you get a confirmation that your label was created, but you still need to click on "Create Filter" to complete this process:

Note, too, that you can apply the filter you are currently creating to some messages already in your mailbox. These are not just messages in your inbox, but all messages from your entire mailbox, incoming and archived, which match the criterion you set forth in your filter fields. You can choose to perform the actions specified (at this point, for messages already archived, this would just be attaching the label) on these found messages by checking the box "Also apply filter to...".

6. That's it! The process now would be to setup filters and/or labels for all lists you are subscribed to. Once you have completed this, your incoming mail will be filtered and labeled according to your wishes, and in your sidebar you will see something like this:

As we'll talk about in the next post, you can use these labels to your advantage when searching through your archive, or you can use the labels to be able to read a single mailing list's messages.

Oh, and one more thing. Worried about storing all of these messages? Don't be. I have been following this system on my mailing lists for a few years now, and have tens of thousands of messages. Google is kind enough to let me know exactly how much space I've used and how much I have left every time I log in to my mail:

5%! No worries. Next time, using your custom mailing list archive.

Side-tracking to Labels

As an intermission of sorts, let's talk a little more about labels, and how you can use labels in Gmail to really maximize the organization of your mailing list archive.

The MOST powerful aspect of labels in Gmail, versus the more traditional folder-structure native to other email clients, is that an email can have more than one label, while in traditional email clients, an email can only reside in one folder. Let's deconstruct that sentence a little, because this sounds simple (or confusing, if you've never used Gmail before) but it is very important.

In a traditional email client, such as Outlook or even a free service such as Yahoo! mail, when I file my emails away, I usually will file them into folders of my choosing. For instance, I may file all my incoming mailing-list emails by mailing list name, as I have done here so far in Gmail. For my purposes, a folder structure would be perfectly adequate.

But what if I have or want a more complex organizational scheme? For example, say that when I research the Regan name, I tend to do research not just on the name in general from a Regan surname list, but also from the localities in which I know the family has resided, such as Ohio, Louisiana, and Iowa. One might think "Just put the emails from the surname list in a Regan file, the emails from the Ohio list in an Ohio file, etc.!" But what happens when I get an email from my Cincinnati list that talks about Regans? Where do I file it so that I can access it most easily?

This function would search the body of the email for whatever words you specify, then would filter them (and, following our process, label them) accordingly. Used alone, I could use this field to filter for all incoming emails containing the word "Regan", then apply a label of my choice, like, well, "Regan". This would mean that any email, from any mailing list, containing the word "Regan" can be labeled (and therefore stored) any way I see fit.

The "Filter by word" field can also be used with multiple words, so you can specify a range of words to be identified. If used in conjunction with the "From:" field, one could filter a single mailing list, (using the "From:" field, then specify one, two or three related surnames of interest that may be discussed in that mailing list. One could then have the filter label those messages "Urgent," as there would be a high probability of those messages being of most direct interest, and therefore would be higher priority to be read. Such a setup could maximize efficiency when reading mailing lists, and cut down on time wasted reading through posts that have no meaning to the reader.

Considering the fact that all emails can have more than one label, you can see how exponentially powerful this setup could be! It is really only limited by your patience and capacity for organization. The beauty, really, is that it can handle the most complex and most simple organizational methods.

Next time, we'll delve into using the custom archive.

Till then, I remain,

An introduction

This post marks not only the first post in this new blog, but also a teaser to the first in a series I have been considering for a while, namely how to maximize the value of Google tools to maximize your own genealogical research.

First, a little background on myself, and my approach in this blog in general, and in this coming series in particular. I am 32 years old, and have been pretty much addicted to the internet for about 15 years. From the first time I loaded up Lynx and magically found some websites that interested me, I was hooked. I remember looking with amazement at Netscape 1. A graphical browser! Wow! Imagine the possibilities!

After graduation I moved back to California from the cold, cold east coast and landed in San Francisco. I was here for the .com ex/im-plosion, and like everyone else, made a living in online affairs for a time, centered around Online Learning. When I moved to a non-profit (after my company shut down) I was luckily able to continue my interest in the possibilities of online education.

When I picked up an interest in genealogy, I realized that the internet is a revolutionary force in family history and genealogy, and I am excited to be a part of it, no matter how small, through my website Rainy Day Research, and in my own personal research.


The series I will be unveiling soon will discuss the many possibilities of Google tools in genealogy research. I have been an avid user of these tools since I moved from Yahoo about four years ago, and I haven't looked back. (And no, Google isn't paying me for this!)

Series Parts:

1. GMail and Mailing Lists
2. iGoogle and Organizing Research
3. Google Books
4. Google Reader and Blogs
5. Google Notebook and Online Research

'Till then, I remain,