Basic Listserv Mailing List Maintainance

by Anthony R. Thompson, This document is also available on the World Wide Web at

based on LSoft's List Owner's Manual, available on the World Wide Web at or in various formats via FTP at in FTP/DOCUMENTS. If you do not know how to use FTP or a World Wide Web client, mail me at and I will mail you a copy.

Table Of Contents

Introduction: What It Means to Own a List

This document introduces you to some of the nuances of maintaining a Listserv mailing list. It assumes that the list has already been set up correctly and that you don't need to modify the behavior of the list itself. If you want to modify something about the list itself (eg, make it so no one can see who's subscribed), see the "Advanced Listserv Mailing List Maintainance" document.

Listserv is the name given to a piece of software that is used to distribute electronic mail. It allows someone to send mail to one address and have that mail go out to large numbers of people. The address someone would send their mail to is the electronic "mailing list" address, and the message would end up getting sent to everyone who is "subscribed" to the mailing list. There are mailing lists on various topics, and thus when people subscribe to a particular list the end effect of the e-mail messages that get sent via the list is a discussion group.

As the owner of a Listserv mailing list you are responsible for making sure that the list runs smoothly. Don't worry--it sounds like an impressive feat, but it's not actually as hard as it sounds.

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When To Act: User Requests and List Errors

The most common thing you will do as the owner of a mailing list is add and remove people from your list. There are two main reasons you would do these. First, a user might request that you do something list-related (such as unsubscription) for them. Secondly, there may be a list error indicating that you must remove someone.

A user request will come in the form of normal mail to you, though if you run a moderated list (ie, where you or someone else must approve postings) you may also intercept such requests in the moderation process (moderated lists are covered in the Advanced List Maintainance document). Either way, it will typically be a message like "Please add me to your list" or "Please remove me from your list". What you basically have to do at that point is take care of their request for them. Listserv errors are discussed in a separate section below.

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Where to Send Commands From: The List Owner Account

In order to issue a command to Listserv you must do it by e-mail, and to use special "list owner commands" you must do so from your list owner account. This is specified in the "header" of the list, which contains a number of keywords that describe how the list operates. To review the list header as well as who is currently subscribed, mail with a body of "REVIEW listname".

By the way, unless otherwise specified here you should not put the quotation marks in the mail message; they're just used here to set off the text. Words in capitals are specific commands and should be typed in as shown, while lower-case words should be filled in appropriately. For example, you would replace "listname" or "listpassword" with the name of the list you're interested in or the list password, respectively. Subject lines are irrelevant when sending commands to Listserv, only the body matters.

Very soon after you send that command to Listserv via e-mail you should get a response that contains the list header and the list of subscribers. Look for the "owner" field, and the first (or only) address listed next to it is the account you have to use to send owner commands from. This is important because if you try to send an owner-only command (such as unsubscribing another user) from a different account you'll get an error message in return saying that you didn't have enough privileges to do it.

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Issuing Commands: How To Subscribe and Unsubscribe People

Now that you know which account to send owner commands from, as well as how to get the list header and current subscribers, we come to some of those privileged list owner commands. In order to issue those, however, you must also specify a password to prove you really do own the list; forging e-mail is relatively easy and without a list password someone could pretend to be you and issue list owner commands for your list. Since the list password is set when the list is created, you should already know the password for your list. If you don't, contact the person who created the list for you or another administrator at the site your list runs on.

To unsubscribe someone from your list without having Listserv send them notification, mail with a body of "QUIET DELETE listname theiraddress PW=listpassword".

If you omit the QUIET part and start the command with DELETE, Listserv will remove them and then send the person a separate piece of e-mail telling them they've been deleted from the list. Since many times someone will mail the list owner requesting something, usually issuing the command in QUIET mode and then replying to their e-mail letting them know you did it for them is sufficient. For that reason I prefer to use QUIET and it will be used in commands here, but you may omit it from any command and Listserv will send the user notification of your command.

To subscribe someone to your list without having Listserv send them notification, mail with a body of "QUIET ADD listname theiraddress theirfirstname theirlastname PW=listpassword".

As a special note, if someone asks you to change which address list mail is being sent to, you must unsubscribe their old address and then add the new one.

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Issuing Commands: Setting Subscriber Options

Occasionally someone may write to you telling you that the list is too "high volume" for them (ie, it sends too many messages to them for their liking). Rather than removing them, another option is to make it so that the user receives a bunch of list messages at once in one large message called a digest. The digest then gets sent periodically (such as daily or weekly) to them. To set this option for someone, mail with a body of "QUIET SET listname DIGEST FOR theiraddress". If you ever want to unset this option for someone, the command is "QUIET SET listname NODIGEST FOR theiraddress".

There are actually quite a few options that you can set for people. All of them have the general command structure of "QUIET SET listname option FOR theiraddress". Some of the more useful options are:


sets it so that someone receives or doesn't receive mail from the list. Why set someone as NOMAIL instead of just using DELETE to remove them? If you only want them to not get mail temporarily (eg, on vacation) or aren't sure whether or not to delete them (see Listserv Errors below), set them to NOMAIL. Then periodically issue the command "QUERY listname WITH NOMAIL FOR *@*" to see everyone who is set NOMAIL and perhaps try resetting some of them to MAIL. This is more complicated, though; to make your life easy just use DELETE to unsubscribe someone and then keep a separate record of any people you should ADD later.


sets whether someone receives an acknowledgement message from Listserv telling them that their posting was successful.


sets whether someone is concealed from a casual user's REVIEW command. The list owner can always see all users by issuing "GET listname (NOLOCK" or only concealed users by issuing "QUERY listname WITH CONCEAL FOR *@*".


sets whether someone gets a copy of their own postings from the list.

Other options can be found in LSoft's List Owner's Manual mentioned at the start of this document.

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Taking Care of Business: Listserv Errors

Just as people may mail you individually asking you to do something for them, you may also get automatic messages from mailing machines. These typically take the form of some error message, where you get the mail (or in this case, the post to the list) back with error information attached to the top. Such a message is also known as "bounced" mail since the message never made it to its destination and instead got returned to its sender (or in the case of a Listserv list, to the mailing list owner).

Note: If you run a large list, you may get quite a few of these error messages daily and may wish to look into a way to "filter" your incoming e-mail so that list-related messages go one place and personal e-mail goes another. E-mail programs and systems vary, but if you use a UNIX system you may wish to check out the World Wide Web page at

The error information that is attached to a bounced piece of mail is often cryptic, but if you look for a few seconds you can usually spot the English phrase that tells you what's going on. There are a variety of mailing errors you may get, and they're listed below.

"User unknown" or "No such user at host"

The subscribers' address is invalid and there is no such user's account (ie, the part before the @ sign) in existence on that machine. A good response is to remove that account from the list with "QUIET DELETE listname badaddress PW=listpassword".

"Unknown host" or "No such host"

The host part of a subscriber's address (ie, the part after the @ sign) is itself invalid (eg, the bad address is and doesn't really exist). You can use QUIET DELETE on the address here as well.

"Transient failure"

The mail host does exist, but Listserv couldn't deliver mail to it. My experience is that you shouldn't worry about it. The problem is probably just temporary, and Listserv will keep trying to deliver the message periodically for a few days before giving up. If you continually get transient failures with a particular host, you might want to consider using QUIET DELETE to remove that address from the list, or perhaps setting the address as NOMAIL (described above in "Setting Subscriber Options").

"Mailbox full" or "Disk quota exceeded"

The user has too much e-mail and their system won't let them get any more. Use QUIET DELETE or NOMAIL, though if you do DELETE them you should attempt to ADD them again later because the problem is likely only temporary.

"Unknown mailer error x"

Something about the mail delivery setup on the user's mail host is incorrect. The problem is most likely temporary, so use QUIET DELETE or NOMAIL with the same caveat as for "mailbox full".

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Conclusion: Further Help

This document has only covered basic Listserv mailing list maintainance. If you wish to change the behavior of the list itself (such as making it moderated or changing ownership) look at the "Advanced Listserv Mailing List Maintainance" document. For that and other advanced topics I also highly recommend LSoft's List Owner's Manual, upon which this and the Advanced document are based. It is available on the World Wide Web at or in various formats via FTP at in FTP/DOCUMENTS. If you do not know how to use FTP or a World Wide Web client, mail me at and I will mail you a copy.

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This document written by Anthony R. Thompson ( in November, 1995. Last updated November 1, 1995.

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