Last week, I reviewed a 1967 article about handling general correspondence.  Pinkett noted little value in the correspondence that accompanies case files, so I’ll focus on his commentary about general correspondence to see if I can find any relevant applications to the world of email.

Before I get too far, I want to consider the definition for correspondence.  The Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines it in two ways:

  1. Written communication, especially those sent by courier or post; letters.
  2. The process of communicating in writing.

I believe if you ask most people on the street, they would define correspondence as the former.  Once when I was lamenting with an archival colleague the difficulty of appraising correspondence, he exclaimed, “I correspond with my grandmother.  I don’t correspond for work.”

But yet it seems like many archivists prefer the all-encompassing second definition.  In my professional experience, I have certainly found numerous correspondence files that includes not only letters sent and received but also internal memoranda, reports, and other written records lacking in much substance — yet qualifying as correspondence because they are written communications.

I wonder if this is a situation where government archivists have tried to embrace the priorities of manuscript archivists in some attempt to create unity — but without recognizing the distinct uses of correspondence for government employees versus that for authors, for instance.  Pinkett identified numerous values in correspondence, including the ability to understand decision-making and to gauge public reaction to government actions.  While these attributes were probably at some point embodied in government correspondence, the correspondence I’ve scanned from recent decades is much more transactional than it is revelatory.  I was much more likely to find a thank you for conference logistics than an overview of how a new agency policy was developed and implemented.

Explaining the declining value of government correspondence is probably a bigger topic than I can tackle here, but I remember a conversation I had during a consultation with a government agency when we were reviewing their records inventory, and they announced, “We don’t have any correspondence.  We do everything by email now.”  Though it may seem overly simplistic, perhaps this is the best explanation — with the change in our mechanism for communication, we’ve witnessed a change in the substance of our communication.  (There’s also the more nefarious post-Watergate notion that government officials are wary of creating records that could be used against them, but this isn’t the place for that psychological analysis.)

Let’s face it — with our virtually instantaneous communication today, we evidence little forethought or revision because we assume any confusion engendered by the words transmitted can be addressed in a follow-up email.  No longer do we need to buy a stamp and wait for delivery — actions that perhaps caused us to attach more gravity to the words we chose when using snail mail.

But what this means for archivists is that mountains of electronic records are being generated, including not only email but also social media — and the diamonds in the rough are few and far between.  Two of Pinkett’s suggestions could help to eliminate some email bulk by retaining emails only from the “action office” rather than capturing everyone’s reference copies and by ignoring correspondence unrelated to the major functions of the agency.  Yet I’m still not sure we will find that rare specimen that explains decision-making and captures public opinion.

Archivists have been adept at embracing some change in the realm of electronic records — perhaps we now need to consider two new possibilities:

  • look to other allied professions for mechanisms to gauge the research value of email
  • adjust our targets for where we expect to locate the substance of decision-making activities and public reactions to government

If these suggestions sound intriguing, return next week to read my elaboration on these thoughts.