So you think your in-box is crowded? Meet Wendy Gilbertson of Eden Prairie, who has "saved" more than 18,000 e-mails, including 14,000-plus still-unread missives, dating to Dec. 3, 2006.

"I have a hard time parting with things," she said with a chuckle. "It's almost like my in-box should be on [the A&E show] 'Hoarders.' I am a sentimental person. I save all my kids' papers from school. My husband has, like, 10 e-mails in his in-box. He goes, 'How can you function like this?' I don't know any other way to function."

For Gilbertson and millions of others, computers have become what the attic was to their grandparents: a space where we can store precious memories -- and a whole lot of junk to go with them. And with 294 billion e-mails a day being dispensed here, there and everywhere, clutter is inevitable.

"Back in the day, you really had to pay a premium for storage," said Mark Lanterman, chief technology officer of Twin Cities-based Computer Forensic Services.

"But now hard-drive space is so inexpensive that a lot of people just choose to hang onto everything."

So while our laptops, PCs and tablets have made many tasks easier, they've also brought out the pack rat in most, if not all, of us.

There's nothing wrong with using technology to store reams of data. And some of what's on our hard drives should never be subject to the delete button, especially heartfelt notes and photos or business-related correspondence.

Gilbertson has found a safe spot for at least one e-mail: the one she sent out when her daughter was born in 2003.

A similar emotional attachment fuels most decisions to turn these items into electronic keepsakes. Bob Alberti, whose quest to find his birth mother was successful, said he kept all related communication "for legal and sentimental reasons."

Steve Kroll's oldest item is an e-mail that his daughter Krysta, then 8, sent to a website called on Dec. 15, 2000. She was worried she wouldn't get the Nintendo system or the water dish for her dog she'd asked for because they'd be out of town for the holiday.

The response from Santa was a keeper: "I just checked my Nice List and yes, there are some cool toys for you, including a Nintendo set. I will bring the gifts the night after Christmas since you will be in Las Vegas. Boy, Las Vegas sounds like fun. Mrs. Claus and I like to go there on vacation ourselves sometimes. Of course, I have to wear a disguise so no one knows me. ...

"Scurry, our elf in charge of pet gifts, will make sure Mel gets a new water dish. She's a good dog most of the time. Well, I better go now because it's time to feed the reindeer."

Some bonding bytes

Jessica Foster's oldest e-mails are often as playful and certainly more poignant: e-mail exchanges with her brother Michael, who died of cancer in 2009. "The mundane ones, the sweet ones ... I'll keep them all -- especially the off-color jokes."

Many missives involved their dating travails. "I have one from him, titled 'Reason no. 167 I hate dating.' That started with me. I had met a guy online, and before our first date he e-mailed me and said 'I'm kind of broke this week. Can you pay?' Michael and I couldn't believe it."

Another bit of bonding: "We both didn't like the woman that our dad was dating. I would call her Scare-a, and he would call her Moustache because she didn't know the wonders of waxing.

"Why would you ever delete something like that?"

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643