Reflections on Letter Keeping

Having been through most of the personal letters I’ve received over the last 50 years or so, digitised them, kept a few and torn up the rest, it’s a good moment to reflect on what letter keeping is all about.

It seems I started collecting letters in my mid-teens, though I can’t really remember why. Perhaps, as the numbers started to grow, they acquired the status of a collection, and from that point there was no turning back. Anyway, I know that later on in life – around my thirties perhaps – as life became more hectic with family and work, I perceived that I could refer to the letters to refresh my memory of what people had told me about their lives, and when we had last communicated. Indeed when I started getting newsy emails from people, I specifically stored them with file titles which included a date and a short summary of the most significant information they contained. I had a notion that this would enable me to quickly glance down the file titles to refresh my memory of children’s names, what jobs people had etc.. I still believe that is useful, and, now that I’ve converted the whole collection to be primarily digital, I shall digitise all the physical missives I get and allocate file names accordingly; and I’ll also continue to store some of the more interesting emails in the same folders. As time goes by I’ll see if the file names prove useful or not.

As I ploughed through the exercise of digitising some 1900 letters and cards, I realised it was going to take just too long to have a separate file for each item. Instead, I scanned all the letters from one individual into a single PDF file. This has the advantage that it makes it very easy to quickly leaf through a whole set of letters – a fact I can vouch for because I went through each PDF to make sure the scans were the right way round, in the right order etc.. In fact, it’s left me with a warm feeling knowing that all these personal communications from my friends are just a few keystrokes away. Furthermore, I know from my previous experience with mementos, that when I move them onto the iPad, they’re going to be even easier, quicker and more enjoyable to get at and browse through. When the collection was in concertina files in the loft, it was an effort to go and find a letter and then read it – so much so that it was really impractical unless there was a particular necessity for doing so. Now, I can get at most of the letters I have ever received in my life within a few seconds and read them at my leisure. Of course, it’s not something I’m going to be doing very often – but when I do want to refer to something, it’s quite an extraordinary capability to have.

Of course most people simply won’t have a letter collection to digitise in the first place and probably won’t want to be bothered to start building one up. However, that’s not the main reason why such collections these days may be quite unusual. The fact is that we are sending and receiving far fewer hardcopy missives than we used to. Instead, people are sending emails and texts, and are talking to each other in social media sites. Furthermore, the messages they are sending are shorter and more focused. The long discursive communication covering a variety of topics is becoming rarer.

Since the newer systems are already digital, one would think it would be easier to collect the messages and retrieve them at will. That is true to some extent. However, it only really applies within a single system and not across multiple systems, because to keep on top of exporting the volume of messages individuals get today to a single unitary store would be impractical, and, even if you got them all into single store, some may lose their formatting and readability. Even being able to access very old messages in a single system relies on you staying with a particular service provider instead of moving around; and on that service staying in business over the long term. This hasn’t been the case in the past when old systems have disappeared and new systems have emerged. Whether the systems around today (such as Facebook, for example) will possess such stability, has yet to be seen. In principle moving from one service to another shouldn’t mean that you lose your old missives, but it is often impractical to transfer material from old to new. For all these reasons, maintaining a unitary store of all one’s written communication today is far more difficult than just putting a letter into a concertina file!

The digital environment has one other distinct disadvantage – electronic files are far more likely to become unreadable than paper. To mitigate against obsolete hardware and software and general system malfunction, a rigorous backup and digital preservation regime has to be put in place and adhered to reliably over the years.

With all these thoughts in mind, it appears that my lifetime collection of letters is not just unusual but perhaps something that future generations will not even have the opportunity to possess. The technology that is allowing me to browse at will through my collection of letters is the very same technology that has destroyed the practice of letter writing. The teenagers of today will be able to easily retrieve their messages from the systems they are using, but they will be of such a volume and on such narrow topics that they may have no desire to collect them or browse through them.  As to collecting all their communications from all the systems they have used across a 50 year time scale – well, that seems not only unlikely but hardly worth the effort.

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