Hard Copy and History

Recently, the Roosevelts, the U.S. Postal Service, and social media merged in my musings about writing.

I know; it seems like a strange combination, but bear with me. There is a thread that runs through all.

I watched all of the broadcasts of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History by filmmaker Ken Burns. It was a wonderful retelling of the story of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. True to form, Mr. Burns did a masterful job of interweaving private writings – journals and letters – with historical narration and stunning visuals. He had a treasure trove to work with since all three of his subjects were prodigious letter writers.

The permanence of writing on paper (hard copy) allows historians to perceive people’s attitudes set within the era in which they lived. Letters especially contain the truest viewpoints and observations of the writer. We tend to tell our friends and loved ones what we really think about things.

Which brings me to the U. S. Postal Service. For years there was nothing better than going out to the mailbox and finding a letter from someone. Getting a letter meant someone was thinking about me and took the time and effort to write and mail her thoughts. I love to write letters myself. It allows me to clarify and organize my thoughts in a relaxed, unhurried way.

I don’t get letters much anymore. There are one or two friends with whom I still correspond. I like to send letters the old fashioned way. Unfortunately, I am in a tiny, quickly diminishing minority. The Postal Service has suffered and continues to reinvent itself to try to stay in business in an electronic age. Most people now communicate through texts, e-mails, and social media.

The only thing I seem to get in the mailbox these days are magazines, advertising circulars, and bills.  Even these will fade into images on an electronic screen.

How will future historians follow the thought trail for today’s leaders? How will they be able to put their hands on text exchanges, social media posts, or e-mails? Where does all that electronic communication end up?

A recent Mashable article “What Happens to Your Social Media Profiles When You Die?” outlines the various policies of the different social media offerings. In most cases, access will only be available for a legal reason or, for some services, if a representative is designated before death.

How will that affect historical researchers fifty to a hundred years from now? How will they gain access to, let alone be able to find, the thoughts of those who affect history? If they can, will Facebook posts and Tweets, essentially circulated to a wider public than private letters, reflect the true essence of a person?

I can’t help but feel sad for a writing process that is dying and wonder how it will affect history’s view of us. A hundred years from now, our great-great grandchildren won’t be able to experience the joy of finding a bundle of love letters, tied with a ribbon, at the bottom of a dusty, old trunk.  They won’t be able to carefully unfold an authentic page of their own history.