Preserving -- or losing -- our written sentiments

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Let's journey to the year 2113. Imagine an archivist searching to learn more about an organization that is more than 100 years old. What will the archivist find from this decade? Will any records be in a form that will be discernible? What about correspondence between members of the organization?

I wonder if our present time period will be lost to archivists, just as the Native Americans' oral history is lost to us (that is, until Europeans arrived and began to write their version!). At least we have some wonderful photographs of Native Americans from the 19th century. What will happen to the photographs of the 21st century? Will they be in a printed form? Will Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever follows still be in existence? Will our photos still exist in the cloud, or will the cloud disappear?

As Head of School at a school that was founded in 1870, we constantly find and receive wonderful photos, letters, and records that date to the early years of the school. Descendants of alumni send really interesting keepsakes that they find in boxes in the attics when cleaning out their loved ones' homes. We still find extraordinary items on campus.

For example, last month, while renovating a small outbuilding on our campus, there was a drawer in a file cabinet filled with original news articles, letters, and photographs from the 1890s. These items helped us capture an era more than 120 years ago.

In the digital age, there are no heartfelt letters written by children to parents while they are away from home at camp, college, or vacation. The instant messages through tweets, texting, phone calls, Skype, and FaceTime are lost as fast as they are received. How will an archivist find a tweet? Our social history is slowly becoming a vacuum.

What about books? How exciting it is to read margin notes from a relative in a cherished volume of work. With e-books, margin notes will be as fleeting as a tweet. Also, regarding books, what will happen to special gift books with a personal inscribed note of congratulations or accomplishment? Will e-note inscriptions be saved for our descendants?

One of my favorite plays is Love Letters by A. R. Gurney. In it, the character Andy discusses his feelings about letters.

"This letter, which I'm writing in my own hand, with my own pen, in my own penmanship, comes from me and no one else, and is a present of myself to you...And it is not a telephone call, which is dead as soon as it is over. No, this is just me, me the way I write, the way my writing is, the way I want to be to you, giving myself to you across a distance, not keeping or retaining any part of it for myself, giving this piece of myself totally, and you can tear me up or throw me out, or keep me, and read me today, tomorrow, any time you want until you die."

This was written in 1989, but is still very prescient of today's instantly-lost personal communications.

The exponential growth of technology has many positive benefits to our society and to education. For any educational institution, the various forms of technological communication enhance our ability to communicate with parents, alumni, present students, and prospective students. However, with the present forms of communication we are losing two important aspects of our society -- history and intimacy. The instantly disposable modern communications will not survive the test of time, and any intimacy communicated through them is often lost and will never be remembered. It saddens me.

What can we do? Families should adopt a plan to preserve personal photos, writings, and even maintain family trees. At a larger level, genealogists and archivists should continually stress the need to preserve our public and social histories at town, city, or state levels. Our lives are rich and full, but without a plan for document preservation, the 21st century could be the "Dark Ages" of the future!

-- Ray Broadhead is head of school at The Webb School in Bell Buckle.

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