The Correspondence Conundrum

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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.


Not Your Grandmother’s Correspondence

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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.

“Selective Preservation of General Correspondence”


Email seems to be the elephant in every archival room.  Figuring out what to keep and how to keep it consumes much time for practitioners and professors alike.  Knowing that email is a relatively new format yet correspondence isn’t a new issue for archives, I looked for wisdom in the literature — but it turns out few people are willing to tackle the correspondence dilemma.  I did find an article by Harold T. Pinkett in the January 1967 issue of the American Archivist.  Pinkett was a senior records appraisal specialist at the National Archives.

As early as the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, there was a recognition of the need to manage the amassing of records.  TR recommended restraint when it came to correspondence, suggesting in the name of efficiency “Government officials create and keep only enough correspondence and other papers required ‘to make a record of what is done'” (33).  With the huge expansion of the federal government during the New Deal and World War II, the big push for records management came in the post-war era.  The Hoover Commission Task Force on Paperwork Management of the 1950s analyzed the correspondence of government agencies and found it mostly fell into two categories:

  • general correspondence, including “letters, memoranda, messages, cards, and possibly reports and other records” related to the general functions of the organization
  • correspondence related to “specific transactions or projects” and accumulated in case files (34)

Pinkett found value in general correspondence, suggesting it “provides administrators with invaluable information for their review of the background, development, and effectiveness of policies, procedures, and programs of their agencies” (35).  He also asserted it is valuable to researchers (35):

  • “supplies answers to the whys and wherefores of crucial Government actions”
  • “gives insight on public reaction to Government operations”
  • “provides intimate and unique data concerning the life, interests, habits, and environment of the Nation’s citizens”

Yet even with these potentially valuable reasons to collect general correspondence, Pinkett also acknowledged general correspondence files “tend to bulge with ephemera” (36).  He looked to state archivists from Illinois and North Carolina for estimates of 80-90 percent of routine correspondence that has little research value.

Obviously the question is how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Pinkett recognized that scholars would not be able to sift through the mountains of correspondence and would be dependent on archivists to weed out the less valuable material.  He suggested several criteria to use in determining whether correspondence merits permanent preservation:

  • consider the administrative hierarchy of the organization and whether the files “contain documentation of basic policy and procedural decisions and major public reaction to such decisions and their implementation” (38)
  • recognize that middle management offices are usually involved in “detailed and recurrent activities,” with correspondence that is best preserved selectively rather than in toto because it tends to be summarized in reports received at a higher administrative level
  • prioritize correspondence from offices involved in “substantive activities” that carry out the functions of the organization and focus less on facilitative work “such as internal management and housekeeping” (39)

Long before Greene and Meissner introduced the idea of More Product Less Process (MPLP), Pinkett acknowledged it’s not feasible to review correspondence on an item-by-item basis to separate records with only temporary value from those deserving archival care.  He suggested at the higher administrative levels it might be more quickly assessed by considering the classification/organization of the correspondence files, so that “nonsubstantive material” concerning facilitative activities can be easily identified (40).  For the offices more involved with repetitive transactions, Pinkett asserted the value of sampling to retain representative samples of operating procedures.  He provided several methods of sampling:

  • pick a letter, any letter (e.g., keep all the correspondence from entities beginning with the letter C)
  • look at the frequency of contacts and services in order to determine representative correspondents

Finally, Pinkett suggested several ways to reduce the bulk of correspondence files:

  • eliminate any correspondence regarding non-major activities of the agency
  • de-duplicate records by identifying the “action offices” and consider their correspondence the official/complete record (43)

Tune in next week to see how these ideas might be applied to the modern world of email archiving.