Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Old Ghosts Rear Their Heads

Peter Brophy calls for effective use of email.

I rather enjoyed a recent piece on email in the Independent on Sunday which appeared under the title “scam@gibberish.com”[1]. It set off rather nicely a more serious piece in the Financial Times called “Failing to get the message”[2] which contained the amusing (or is it?) anecdote of one international company where every member of staff received the message: “Would the owner of the red Biro left by the second floor coffee machine like to come and collect it?” In our own profession, the nadir was reached for me when members of a supposedly serious list received instructions on how to draw pictures of guitars using ASCII characters.

Email is without doubt a very useful and now almost indispensable tool. It enables us to communicate with colleagues across the world in minutes or hours and, even with the incompatibility problems of different standards, to exchange complex documents and engage in dynamic discussions. Without email it would be extremely difficult to conduct multi-partner research projects, and the benefits of sharing good practice or pooling expertise to answer a tricky enquiry are immense.

But clearly not everything in the garden is rosy. Email adds to the information overload which so many people now experience as part of their working life, and thus adds to stress. It is frequently used within offices as a quick way to communicate when it would be more beneficial to everyone if human contact was used. Its very immediacy leads to hasty and ill-thought-out messages being dispatched which the sender almost immediately regrets - haven’t we all wished at one time or another that there was an email undo button! Email is poor at conveying nuance and intention and can easily be misinterpreted. Companies are becoming concerned at the ease with which employees could make them liable for litigation (as the recent case involving a prominent UK life assurance company showed) and at the potential for leakage of confidential or sensitive information. All organisations face potential losses through the wasted time spent by employees sifting through ten, twenty, thirty or even a hundred messages a day. Most people receive their fair share of junk email, adding to the frustration. Finally, email can be dangerous to organisations’ systems as its ability to cross firewalls enables viruses to spread.

So what should be done? I would suggest that the situation can be improved by attention to three areas. Firstly, we need tighter control on some email content, especially where it is unsolicited and related to pornographic or extremist material[3]. This is an issue which governments, companies and academic institutions can and should address: interestingly, the main initiative at present appears to be coming from the European Parliament. International co-operation is also needed to weed out fraudsters and this will become more important as secure payment systems become widespread and tempt more and more questionable companies onto the Net.

Secondly, while there is some software around to filter email and discard apparently unsolicited messages and no doubt it will continue to improve, much of the solution lies in the hands of ourselves, the users. We need some kind of code of conduct on sending email. For example: Do not send trivial messages to professional lists. Do not send unnecessary images, especially in your signature file. Do not put in an attachment information that can as easily be placed in the body of the message. Before you apologise for cross-posting, ask yourself if it is really necessary to send the message to so many lists. Do not reply all unless it is really necessary/desirable for everyone to read your comment. If your recipient is in the same building, consider going and talking to them.

Finally, we need some advice and training on how, as recipients, we can get the benefits of email without the overload and hassle. The following suggestions are based on reported research, mainly in the US, with a few additional points culled from bitter experience: Discard unread all messages that come from unknown, suspicious sources (for me .com is automatically suspicious!) or are not key issues for you regardless how seductive the subject line. Effective email users do not attempt to read all the messages they receive. Read each message that you do open once only: act on it immediately if at all possible. Keep your inbox small by moving messages to folders, or even better deleting them. Keep the number of folders small. Read your email at most two or three times a day: do not keep your email open and read each message as it arrives.

Most people worry that if they discard email unread, or fail to keep copies of everything, then there will be one vital message which they will miss which will - well, what? No-one in academia can think that they’ll be fired or that their chance of promotion will be blighted, for the sake of that email. Yes, you will miss important messages. But you will also be much more effective because the time you save can be put to much better use.


[1] Arthur, C. “e-mail:scam@gibberish.com” Independent on Sunday 31st August 1997

[2] Houlder, V. “Failing to get the message” Financial Times, 17th March 1997, 10

[3] An example is the racist message sent to everyone with an Asian Name at one university. CERLIM is currently investigating the use of the Internet by extremist groups in the EMAIN project, funded by the British Library Research & Innovation Centre.

Author details

Peter Brophy
Head of Library and Learning Resource Services
University of Central Lancashire