Email migration

Recently I migrated my email to a new host and discovered a hazard I hadn’t known about before. I didn’t lose anything, but I came closer to it than I would have liked. Since it’s a personal digital preservation issue, it merits a rare post on this blog.

There are two widely used open protocols for email clients: POP3 and IMAP. The latter is far more widely used today, because it lets you synchronize your mailboxes across multiple devices. The downside is that your mail lives on the server and may or may not be saved on your client. If you change your mailbox to a new server, all your existing mail could disappear. As long as you haven’t terminated the old service, you should be able to get it back, but it could be a pain.

If you’re migrating, back up all your mailboxes before starting the move. Back up your mail to local storage periodically so that your IMAP server won’t lose everything to a glitch or unexpected loss of the account.

POP3 is safer in this respect. Your mail lives on your client machine. The downside is that unless you set your options to never delete mail from the server (or delete it only after a long time), your other devices may not have all your mail.

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