When good email disappears: Archiving old messages

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Reader Chris Sinclair would love to have a copy of his old email. He writes.

My company has used Gmail for a few years and recently switched to Office 365. The IT department said that it would be removing my old Gmail but I wasn’t worried about it because I had a copy of that mail in Outlook (which is the email client I use). I launched Outlook the other day and started searching for an old message. I found it but suddenly it and almost all of my old email disappeared before my eyes. Can I get it back? What’s going on?

Having gone through a similar experience I can tell you exactly what happened. You had a Gmail IMAP account, which feeds messages from a central server. The relationship between your computer and this server is such that when messages are deleted from one, they also disappear from the other unless you’ve taken specific steps to back them up.

Some time before you last launched Outlook, the folks in charge of transitioning your email from Gmail to Microsoft deleted your old Gmail messages. When you launched Outlook it showed you a list of the email messages it currently held. However, it then synced with the server, found that a load of those messages had been deleted, and then set about to do the same thing with the locally stored copies. So, they were there one second and gone the next.

The important question is what you can do about it. The first is to pray that the IT department archived those messages and can provide you with access to them. Ask nicely, please.

The other option is to pray just as devoutly that you have a backup of your Microsoft User Data folder, which is where Outlook stores its message database. (Specifically you find it in youruserfolder/Documents/Microsoft User Data/Outlook 2011 Identities/Main Identity.) If you have such a backup, perform the following steps.

Launch System Preferences, select Users & Groups, click the Lock icon and enter your administrator’s name and password to unlock the preference. Click the plus (+) button to create a new account. Configure the account so that it has administrator’s privileges, give it a unique name and password, and click Create User to create the account.

Locate your copy of the Microsoft User Data folder (the one that was backed up prior to this email switch) and place it somewhere that you can access it from a different user account—at the root level of the hard drive or within your user folder’s Public folder. Switch to this other account.

Open this account’s Documents folder and drag the backed up Microsoft User Data folder into it. Now disconnect anything that will allow you Mac to communicated with the Internet—unplug the Ethernet cable that runs to your router or turn off Wi-Fi.

Launch Outlook. It may take awhile for its messages to load. In some cases you may be told that the message database needs to be rebuilt. If so, allow that to happen and then launch Outlook again. All your old messages should appear.

If you were to make your Mac available to the Internet, those messages would disappear again for exactly the reason I outlined. Therefore it’s time to archive them. You can do this by selecting the mailbox in which they live and dragging it to the desktop. This will convert the mailbox to an mbox archive—one that you can import into Outlook in your regular account or import into Apple’s Mail, which you can use only as a client for reading old messages. Once they’re in this imported archive they will no longer be a target for automatic deletion.

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