The Markmail Service

In a recent tweet Matt Jukes alerted me to the MarkMail service. As Matt forms part of my trusted “interesting Web applications alerting services” I went to the Web site. What I found was a search interface across over 4,300 mailing lists. A search for ‘ukoln’ provided me with not only various posts containing this string, but also details of the person who made the post, the lists posted to and also, as shown, a graph of the numbers of posts over time.

Markmail Service

Initially I felt that the graph supported my view that email is dying, but a search for a more general term, “web”, showed me that this was clearly an inappropriate conclusion to make based on this evidence.

But perhaps of more relevance is the main point that Matt made in his tweet:

just discovered be cool if jiscmail lists were searchable here as well..

Yes it would be great if JISCMail exposed its mail archives to third party indexing services such as MarkMail. But to do that (or rather to do that effectively) would require the JISCMail mail archives to provide ‘cool’ application-independent and persistent URIs (which they don’t currently do) and allow robot software to access the resources.  Doing this will, of course, require the service to commit resources to develop work and make changes in policies.  A popular and large scale service, such as JISCMail, would only be in a position to do this if they could see tangible benefits to their user communities. I hope the example of the MarkMail service illustrates the potential benefits of opening up one’s data to third party services.  I have to admit that I find the JISCMail search interface so poor that I seldom use it.  Exposing the data to other services (whether MarkMail, Google or whatever) would enhance access to data available in the JISCMail Web archives, without JISCMail having to wait for the underlying Listserv software to conform with fundamental Web architectural principles.


  1. This is an interesting one! I was at the JCN meeting just recently when the ongoing future of JISCmail was discussed. I made an impassioned plea (not a little informed by spouse and daughter, and others) for the continued role of Mail-list servers (and in particular JISCmail) because for a huge number of academics – JISCmail is the “bees knees”.

    We sometimes forget, living in the rarified Web 2.0 world, or at least I do (can’t speak for you Brian) that for thousands of academics, collaboration means JISCmail. JISCmail is a huge success for UK HE/FE et al collaboration, and is recognised for this worldwide. Because it’s open to anyone to join – it’s also a focal point for collaboration activity outside the university/college sector as well as within the sector globally.

    Yes, I know there are better ways of doing collaboration, but this is the one that academics know (and trust). Yes, it is really the most unfriendly i/f you could want/wish for, and yes – I don’t use that i/f; but others benefit from the functionality of the service.

    So on the principle that extending from a base of what someones knows (trusts) to the brave unknown might just be a way of getting viral adoption of other Web 2.0 technologies, this may just be a winner.

    I’m excited by the possibility, and if Matt wants to start the “wave” going, and if the benefits (business case)can be built up even more, I’m up for supporting this!

  2. Hi David
    Yes I agree with you that the JISCMail service is very popular with its user community. I therefore don’t think it is necessarily the best option to suggest that it should be replaced by something which has been designed to work within the Web architecture. Rather I would like to see the Web interface to the email archives to (a) be exposed to harvesting tools (currently robots are blocked from accessing the Web site and (b) have stable and application-indendent URIs. In addition there will be a need to explore how the policies governing reuse of the data can be made more flexible.

    I feel that the JISCMail archives are potentially of tremendous value to the UK’s academic community and much can be gained if we allow other services (such as, for example, Markmail) to build on this resource.

    I should also add that allowing third party services to access this data may also be beneficial in areas such as link analysis, citation analysis, deep text mining, digital preservation, etc. There is a wealth of expertise in these areas within the academic community – it would be a shame to fail to exploit such potential by keeping valuable data locked into a single Listserv software environment.

    And if we can’t faciliate the development of well-established services, doesn’t this constrain development work in other areas?

  3. Further thought … is MarkMail a bit geekie? Just wondering!

    I applied a standard search which my daughter, a Clinical Psychologist and active JISCmail user, once asked me to apply to a set of other collaborative tool environments – it only returned two messages. JISCmail would obviously enrich the messagebase archive, but perhaps there’s not too much added value after all.

  4. Hi Brian,

    I ran across this post tonight and figured I’d add a little bit to the discussion that you started here.

    I’m one of the founders of MarkMail and it always makes my day to read about people discovering and using the site, so thanks :). But more importantly, I figured I could give you a bit more info on how MarkMail works and perhaps it could help out JISCMail without much effort.

    It sounds like you’re under the impression that MarkMail gets its message data as most search engines do, by crawling the web. But that’s not actually the case with us. We get the messages by subscribing a user to the mailing list itself. That way whenever someone posts a new message to the list we get a copy as well. From the other comments it sounds like the lists on JISCMail are open to the public so there really is no technical reason why MarkMail couldn’t start archiving the lists without JISCMail changing a thing.

    If you’re interested in starting a conversation feel free to shoot me an email or send us a message using the feedback form on the site:


  5. Hi Ryan – Thanks for the response. The background to my post was about the potential benefits of providing richer search interfaces to existing mail archives. This would involve accessing old posts. I appreciate that you can start to index new posts by subscribing to lists, but this wouldn’t help in finding posts which may go back for over ten years.


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