August 31, 2007

An Apology to Future Historians

One of the really fun things I've found in studying history (and yes, there are several) is reading letters. When someone is writing for publication, they are much more polished. There's a sense that 'this is going to last. People are going to read this years from now. I'd better make it a good one.' There's good material in those kinds of writing, to be sure, and you can learn a lot. They are valuable resources, and important to doing history.

But in letters you get much more personal. You meet the writer as they are -- they're not worried about people reading the letter decades from now, they're not thinking about the public record. They're just putting some words on paper for someone they know, giving them advice or telling stories or encouraging them -- whatever the purpose, they're very much in the moment, not concerned about the longevity of the letter. Some of my favorite books are collections of these letters -- these things people never thought would be widely read. I find myself learning a LOT more about the writer, and their time, when I read their letters.

This post at the Thinklings blog got me thinking. Actually, it got me thinking again about something that I've discussed with my wife (the American Revolution scholar). "What are historians going to do with the late 20th-early 21st centuries?"

We don't write letters much any more. (Of course, my wife will tell you that I never write letters BEFORE I got the computer and Internet access, but I digress). We email, and email is a very fragile thing. All I have to do is hit one button, type one command, and it's gone. DELETED, as StrongBad would say. Computer forensics could find some of them, but fifty years from now they'll be gone, unless we save them all. And I don't know many people that keep all their email -- I've even deleted email from my "bottomless account" at Gmail.

Will historians of the future wonder about us? Or will they be so used to electronic communications that they won't think twice about it? Will they be amazed at the amount of paper correspondence that we still do have? Or maybe they'll just spend a lot of time poking through server records, wondering why the ruler of Nigeria spent so much time trying to get people to hide his money.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 08:40 AM | Comments (5) | Add Comment
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1 Some believe that nothing you ever send to the Internet ever is deleted. It just keeps circulating somewhere through the cloud forever. This is even scarier than the thought that it might be deleted.

Posted by: Greg at September 04, 2007 03:36 PM (Cyz2R)

Posted by: Richard at April 28, 2009 01:50 PM (Il5/L)

Posted by: dmwklnnw at April 29, 2009 05:39 AM (pkPao)

Posted by: Mike at April 30, 2009 05:59 AM (L4BRQ)

Posted by: claussberg at May 01, 2009 01:46 AM (o1y3P)

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