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How to Archive Old Mail in Outlook and Keep the PST File Small

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As the pile of mail you keep in Outlook grows, so, typically, does the time it takes Outlook to do what you want it to. At the horizon—maybe the not so distant horizon—the PST file size limit looms. (The PST or "Personal Folders" file, of course, is where Outlook keeps all your data, including calendars, contacts and emails.)

Either way, it pays to keep the size of your main PST file small and manageable. You can have Outlook do some of that using AutoArchive. Or you divide your messages between more PST files, which can be painless and swift.

Archive Old Mail in Outlook and Keep the PST File Small

To create an archive of old messages in Outlook separate from the PST file you use every day:

  • Select File | Data File Management from the menu in Outlook.
  • Click Add....
  • Choose the desired format. Unless you may need to access the data with Outlook 2002 or earlier directly, it is safe to highlight Office Outlook Personal Folders File (.pst).
  • Click OK.
  • Enter the desired file name.
    • I like yearly archives, and naming the PST file after the year makes sense. Of course, you can choose monthly archives if you do have lots of big mail to deal with, or another scheme. Just make sure the resulting PST files' sizes are somewhere around 1-2 GB. Larger files tend to be less efficient.
  • Click OK.
  • Type the archive PST file's desired name under Name:.
    • Again, it makes sense to name your archive after its contents (a year's worth of mail in my case).
  • Optionally, protect access with a password.
  • Click OK.
  • Now click Close.

Move Mail to the Archive

To populate your newly created archive PST:

  • Drag and drop entire folders to the root folder newly appearing under Mail Folders.
    • This is handy if you already have an "Archive" folder that contains, say, all of last year's mail. Just drop it unto the archive PST.
  • Alternatively, to archive individual items:
    • Click on the root folder named after your archive PST under Mail Folders with the right mouse button.
    • Select New Folder... from the menu.
    • Type the desired folder name.
    • Make sure Mail and Post Items is selected under Folder contains: if you want to archive emails. For archiving other items, choose the appropriate category.
    • Click OK.
    • Drag and drop individual or groups of emails onto the newly created folder.
  • To move all mail preceding a certain date in a folder (or nested folders):
    • Select File | Archive... from the menu in Outlook.
    • Make sure Archive this folder and all subfolders: is selected.
    • Highlight the desired folder.
    • Specify the date emails prior to which (say, this year's January 1) you want to move under Archive items older than: __.
    • Use the Browse... button to select the archive PST file created above.
    • Click OK.
  • Optionally, compact your live PST file to claim newly freed space right away.

Close the Archive PST File

After you have archived all items, you can close the PST file in Outlook:

  • Click on the root folder of your archive PST under Mail Folders with the right mouse button.
  • Select Close "___" from the menu.

Access Mail from a Closed Archive PST File

To retrieve messages from an archive PST file you have closed:

  • Select File | Open | Outlook Data File... from the menu in Outlook.
  • Highlight the desired archive PST file.
  • Click Open.

The PST file and its folders will appear under Mail Folders, ready for action.

(Updated August 2011)

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