I like letters as much as the next person.  I write to family and friends, and I’ve saved hundreds of letters sent to me over the years.  When I was in Jackson for a workshop, I skipped lunch one day because that was the only opportunity I’d have to go to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and see Eudora Welty’s letters.  There was something almost magical about holding the letter written to Welty by William Faulkner.

But as an archivist, I have to remind myself of several things:

  1. We’re not all award-winning writers.
  2. Personal correspondence often has a very different flavor than professional correspondence.
  3. For every inspiring letter that gets collected in a volume, there are thousands more that reveal no insights nor provide any words to live by.

When the prevailing mechanism for correspondence for so many has become email, archivists find ourselves in the unenviable position of trying to maintain the epistolary tradition — for the purposes of research and history and enlightenment — before all of the effects of this medium of exchange have been measured.  Just as the printing press created a lasting impact on writing, email has changed correspondence:

  • It is delivered almost instantaneously, which leads us to expect prompt replies.  With letters that would need to be delivered, time had to be allowed and back-and-forth decision-making was difficult, so letters tended to be composed in more complete thoughts.  Emails take on a more conversational tone, more prone to question-and-answer formats than insightful prose.
  • Emails make it very easy to send the same document to many people simultaneously.  Carbon paper served a similar purpose, but its quality was inferior and there were limits to how many pieces of carbon paper could be typed at once.  So where paper forced us to choose more carefully the recipients of our letters, there is no such compunction for emails — instead, email clients provide for the creation of distribution lists that facilitate our wide dispersals of emails to willing and unwilling recipients alike.
  • Letters — even those that are hundreds of years old — are still easily read so long as they have been protected from vermin, fire, and water.  In 25 years of using email for professional purposes, I’ve lost access to more emails than I could possibly count.  Sometimes our email client changed, and there was no practical way to migrate older messages forward.  Sometimes I changed jobs and had no way of exporting messages from a proprietary system.  This is not to say that I think my emails were worthy of being permanently archived, but it does raise some questions about the completeness of the correspondence record that may be available to archives.

In the professional realm, I see email being used in an increasingly transactional manner, such as firming up details for a presentation.  In the pre-email world — one in which most executives had dedicated secretaries on staff — I think most of these arrangements were carried out by telephone.  While one can argue there’s more convenience to being able to handle this work by email, it also creates a new type of correspondence that has little secondary value for researchers.  Email has also taken over the role that used to be filled by the fax machine, as the cover sheet for an attached document that is distributed either for review or for information purposes.  These sorts of emails many times do not require a response by the receiver but most certainly do create all sorts of technical issues for the archivist who has to be concerned about the digital footprint of the email account being appraised as well as the rendering and copyright issues that may be posed by attachments.

I confess that I have come across little correspondence that fulfills Pinkett‘s goals of explaining government actions and gathering public feedback.  So I’ve begun to wonder it the archival world is approaching this problem from the wrong perspective.  I posed two possibilities last week that may deserve some attention:

  • 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

Here’s what I mean by the first idea.  Perhaps instead of thinking of email as correspondence, we need to look at it as big data.  The digital humanities field has developed numerous tools for visualizing data that could be interesting to apply to email.  Maybe instead of focusing on individual messages, we can take the big picture view and analyze recipients — e.g., did this executive spend more time communicating with subordinates or with external stakeholders?  The work begun at Stanford on ePADD gives us a foundation for this type of processing.

As for decision-making, I’m increasingly convinced this is primarily captured through official channels such as governing board minutes and agency policies.  I’m not sure there is a mechanism for seeing how the sausage is made, so accessioning correspondence records with this goal in mind may leave us empty-handed.

Finally, if we’re seeking public reactions to government actions, I think many of those reactions are now being provided through alternative media.  There is certainly a long history of Americans corresponding with elected officials — for instance, the FDR Presidential Library has hundreds of letters written to FDR as well as to Eleanor Roosevelt during the height of the Great Depression, including everything from support for legislation to plaintive requests for coats.  But today it seems a lot of this dialogue is instead occurring on social media.  While there are certainly tools that can help archives maintain and provide access to such records, it becomes quite complicated to determine which platforms deserve permanent preservation and whether people’s posts can be captured by an archival institution without the expressed permission of the writer.  And where authenticity has been a cornerstone of the archival profession, social media creates a quagmire of anonymous users and bot posters.

There are certainly no easy answers to the correspondence conundrum.  But I believe the sooner we let go of the notion that we are still living in the halcyon days of meaningful correspondence, the sooner we can begin fashioning some useful tools for and approaches to dealing with the traces of decision-making and public reaction that are actually available today.