Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lost Letters

Most of us now correspond through e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and texting. However, the sending of bits and bytes has only been our prime form of written communication for about ten years. People still retain old written letters from friends and family, personal notes and greetings, and formal correspondence in file boxes and cabinets. Written expression has been a major form of communication since the beginning of civilized society. We first exchanged ideas in writing on rocks and cave walls and later moved to papyrus and other more portable forms that allowed our writing to become more prolific. Digital resources have made it even easier to jot down our thoughts, continuing the evolutionary process of our writing. We must view all the various written ways we communicate as a whole, saving what is most important for ourselves and posterity.

It is interesting to note that in addition to the format change, the evolution of correspondence has changed what we say and how we say it. For one, correspondence tools allow us to give information to many people at once rather than sending one message at a time. We can do this to specific people with e-mail, but we can also spread a message to strangers via social networking sites. Things that were once private are now becoming public. Additionally, as we share more and more, we write fewer and fewer words in one shot to do it. Since social networks and e-mail are virtually free, and we can make use of them with tools that are available to us at any time. We are tending to write in short bursts and more often than in the past. It is now uncommon for one to sit and write an in-depth description of one’s week to mail off to a far off loved one. Many would rather just write something such as, “Baby took 1st steps this morn” on our Facebook wall and let a back-and-forth dialogue ensue.

As technology makes the communication itself easier, in many ways it makes the saving of collections of correspondence related to our lives more difficult. On the good side, E-mail has made it easier for us to save copies of our correspondence. In the past, one had to make a concerted effort to make carbon copies of our letters or to photocopy them before sending if we wanted to retain back and forth communiqu├ęs. Today, our computer systems keep both sides of correspondence within our software programs, so we can easily see what someone has written to us alongside our reply. But how do we separate the important e-mails from the doldrums and what about those text messages, blog posts, and tweets? The Library of Congress has announced a program to “archive” Tweets, but we do not yet know how your ancestors may be able to access them in the future.

A box of printed letters to you may be missing your replies, but at least your ancestors (and possibly historians) will have a complete view of the words others wrote to you. How many people think about how family might be able to treasure your e-mails and other digitized words? It is advantageous for those of us thinking about the value of our correspondence to use programs that back up Twitter and Facebook accounts. Keep your important and interesting e-mails organized in folders and think of these folders as you would the old fashioned kind. Label them so the files inside make sense and are easily accessible. Also, be aware that digital files can be lost in the blink of an eye. Make 2 copies of everything. Keep the copies in alternate formats and retain one off site. Be prepared to migrate the data as technology keeps changing. For small home collections, it is always acceptable to print what is most important to you and save it the old fashioned way, in preservation safe folders, just to be sure. (For more on preservation see Preserving Archives and Personal Papers and "Preservation" heading on Links to Helpful Archives and Cultural Heritage Web Sites within the ArchivesInfo web pages.)

We are in the midst of a great change in communication. For now, we must still keep an eye toward the old way of doing things while automation changes rapidly. The cross over to a digital world is only just beginning. The implications of lost correspondence is troubling for both the purpose of scholarship and family / community memory.

Here are a few interesting online sources highlighting the importance of maintaining correspondence and the battle to save letters:

Literary Letters: Lost in Cyberspace

PBS: The Perilous Fight: Archiving War Letters

Personal Archiving Conference

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to @FamilyTreeFolk for recommending I provide more information about preservation. I hope the links I added to the article is useful