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.

The numbers

The job of putting the letters into folders got finished last night. I’d previously used plastic concertina files but found them difficult to see into a slot to select letters from a particular individual and to get groups of letters in and out of the slot. In the light of this experience, I decided to use plastic display books with 40 pockets in each (about £1.40 each from Wilkos), and I’m finding these to be a much better storage vehicle for letters and cards. They do take a up a little more shelf space than concertina files – but not very much more; and that disadvantage is more than outweighed by the fact that they make it just so much easier to see and read the missives.

Now for some numbers: the approximate total number of non-email items I’ve kept over the last 50 years or so is about 1900 from about 145 people. Of these, about 760 were letters, 800 were cards, 100 were postcards, 81 were Xmas round robins, 16 were wedding invites or birth announcements, 28 were change of address or phone number cards, 20 were batches of photos, and 70 were sundry other documents. Of course I didn’t keep everything so these figures represent only a subset of the overall communications received.

When it came to deciding which of the items to keep after scanning and which to tear up and throw away, I initially destroyed about 1400 of the 1900 items. Of the remaining 500, I destroyed a further 90 in the course of trying to decide a set of reasons for keeping particular items. Hence, I have kept just over 400 physical items. Of these a substantial number (about 80) are airmail letters from my parents from when they were abroad when I was in my late teens / early 20s; and a further 130 are from my wife.

Excluding the above two major sets of items (airmails and from my wife), there were about 1660 items to start with (from about 145 people), of which about 260 were initially retained; and 200 made the final cut and were stored in folders.

Since the 1990s, some of the communications from my friends have come by email. I’ve left those numbers out of the statistics above because the figures I have are very inaccurate.  I have copied and saved particularly informative emails, and these amount to about 520 across about 45 individuals – but they are not all I received by any means. Interestingly, I also received and saved over 1500 emails from my wife when I was working – but this is atypical: I receive a daily Word-of-the Day email, and, when I was working and leaving home very early in the morning, I would forward it to her when I first checked my email at work with any salient message about that day’s events, and she would reply. It was an effective and reliable communication channel when I was putting in long hours or working away. However, that experience can’t really inform our knowledge about the impact of email on personal communications. On that question, I have not done the ‘date received’ analysis on all the material I have that would be necessary to draw any conclusions. However, my experience seems to match the anecdotal evidence – that we now receive far fewer written communications than we used to. It’s clear that the teenagers of today won’t have letter collections of the sort described here, in 50 years time.

Reasons for keeping the physical missives

After going through all the items I had retained, categorising the reasons why I had kept each one, and then refining the reasons, the following 12 categories of reasons for keeping physical missives emerged:

  • Amusing content
  • Interesting information
  • Last missive before losing touch
  • Last missive from a dead friend
  • Photo or picture of interest
  • Prestigious person, connection or event
  • Pride in child’s development
  • Reminder of something
  • Significant event in my life
  • Significant event in the life of the writer
  • Unusual construction
  • Unusual or special content

Of course this isn’t a definitive list since it is based only on a single individual’s very quick analysis of a relatively small sample of letters. However, it is indicative.

I have previously identified reasons for keeping the physical versions of work items, though I didn’t consult that list in this exercise and had forgotten its detailed content. So, now is the time to compare the two – I suspect they are going to be very different. The other list is as follows:

  • Digitisation to be performed later
  • Items to be put to work in their original form
  • Items for which only the originals confirm their validity
  • Trophy items to be collected and enjoyed in the future
  • Large documents which have particular qualities of impact and integrity
  • Publications with fixed spine bindings and/or special papers
  • Publications which mention friends, colleagues or the Owner
  • Items published by an organisation or programme that the Owner works/worked for
  • Items that the Owner has written, produced, assembled or made a significant contribution to
  • Physical features which make it difficult to digitise the item and/or to reconstruct it from the digital copy
  • Items illustrating a physical form due to a development in technology
  • Age that provides a quality of uniqueness
  • Aesthetic or artistic quality including photos
  • For use in exhibits
  • Items that the Owner wants to keep as mementos of his and her life
  • For easy access and showing to others
  • Does not belong to the Owner
  • Other – specify reason

It looks like the only items which are directly comparable are ‘Aesthetic or artistic quality including photos’ and the letter keeping reason ‘Photo or picture of interest’. There may also be some similarity between ‘Trophy items to be collected and enjoyed in the future’ and the letter keeping reason ‘Prestigious person, connection or event’. Apart from that though, the lists seem very different which is probably no great surprise since they are dealing with two completely different kinds of artefact: personal letters are all about the relationship between two individuals, whilst work documents are focused on rather more impersonal business activities.  There are, of course, personal relationships in business but, in general, that is not the main thrust of business documents.

Now that I’ve completed this ‘reasons’ for keeping’ exercise, I just need to get on and finish putting the letters I’ve kept into their storage folders. After that it will be time to reflect on what I’ve learnt about letter keeping in the digital age

Having friends at your fingertips is amazing

I’m now half way through trying to identify reasons for why I’m keeping some of the original letters and cards. I’ve listed the items I’ve not destroyed, given each of them a short description, and outlined in a few words why I’ve kept each item. Now I’m trying to categorise the reasons.

This part of the exercise has been illuminating. As I’ve been going through the items I’ve retained, I’ve needed to refer to the full set of scanned documents to identify relative dates and activities that have come before and after. This has made me realise just how good it is to have such easy access to all one’s friends over all these years. Their writings are all there, in full technicolour and expanded detail, at the touch of a few keys. It really is amazing.

The task of categorisation is really a rote one: you need to make a first pass through and then adjust a few times to settle on the most appropriate categories which overlap as little as possible. I’m only halfway through right now so can’t provide any categorisation at present. However, I can say that I’m doing this analysis over 265 items sent by 59 individuals. I have a feeling that the reasons for keeping are going to be significantly different from the categories identified from the analysis of documents saved from work documents and mementos.

There is one significant issue that has already reared its head in this reasons-for-keeping work. It seems that the question of who is going to look at this material is affecting the judgements I’m making. For example, if it was only going to be me looking at these missives, I believe that the collection of items I would retain would be different from the collection I would retain if others were to be looking at it. The possible categories of other people could be: family, friends of the people who wrote the missives; any of my friends who don’t know the individual who wrote the missive. I have yet to understand the impact of this insight. It’s possible I may need to be clear about who will see the collection of originals and adjust the originals I keep accordingly.

Replay your life in high definition

A scanning sprint through most of the personal correspondence you’ve received over the last fifty years replays your life in high definition. So many people – so many memories. The experience was accentuated by the exercise I was conducting in parallel to systematically examine all my work documents to ready the collection for any interested repository. I got to wondering if resurfacing it all again, was making any significant changes to my memory and brain generally. However, I don’t think there any apparent changes to my state of mind – I’m perhaps just more, well, AWARE of what’s been going on.

Anyway I finished scanning the whole letter collection yesterday. Despite my intention to only keep the most precious originals, I ended up with a substantial number of items. Perhaps this was hardly surprising given the previous work I’ve done on reasons for keeping document and mementos. However, those insights seemed to count for nothing as I stormed my way through the mass of letters and cards, keen to just get through the job, a little dazed by all the memories, knowing I needed to throw away most of the items for an established rationale, but knowing that once I had torn them up that was it – gone forever. It was spur of the moment instinct that dictated what I kept rather than any clear reasoning; and now, at the end of the process I have two full concertina files from relatives and friends, an envelope of airmail letters from my parents who were abroad in my late teens/early twenties, and all the letters and cards my wife has sent me in the 37 years I have known her. I intend to keep the latter indefinitely; however, I think I need to do some further work on the rest if only to reduce the amount of space they are taking up.

Hence, I plan to do a reasons-for-keeping analysis on them which I will then subsequently compare with the findings from my previous reasons-for-keeping exercise. The aim will be twofold: a) to identify which items can be thrown away, and b) to expand my reasons-for-keeping analysis to include personal correspondence. As a by product of the analysis, I may also be able to derive an approximation of the volume of correspondence I received over the period in question – such data is always useful for comparison purposes when assessing other examples or when considering before and after situations (for example, before and after the introduction of email).

Reasons for digitising letters

I’ve scanned all the As, Bs and Cs now and am beginning to appreciate just how much correspondence can build up over a period of thirty or forty years. It’s especially noticeable when it’s not in uniform paper sizes which can just go through the scanner’s sheet feeder; but instead is a variety of different sized cards and writing paper which have to be scanned individually. With such a volume of material, I think it unlikely that I will ever reread all of it in detail again – though I guess if it was on a tablet I might dip into some of it from time to time. Certainly, having it easily available in digital form for reference purposes (to establish dates, events and places), could be very useful – but probably only to me as the recipient. I feel it unlikely that anyone else would have any interest in it. Indeed, I think it’s probably true to say that even I probably won’t experience the feelings I had when I first received and read these missives because I personally have changed in the interim and so has the context in which the letters were written and read. So, now they can only be re-read from a new perspective which includes one’s own current situation and present relationship with the sender. Despite these rather subtle points, its undoubtedly true that the letters all stimulate precious memories and feelings, and so it’s reassuring to know that I will have the digital versions after I have torn up the physical documents and taken them out with the recycling. I firmly believe that scanning and destroying this material is definitely the right thing to do for following reasons: first because the digital version is likely to get used much more than the hardcopy; second, because it reduces the clutter in the loft; and third, because it will be one (physical) thing less to deal with by those who have to clear up after me when I die.

The ‘A’s – first impressions

I’ve been keeping the letters I receive for as long as I can remember,  but I haven’t got room in my new study for even the most recent missives. Instead, the archive concertina file and the folders containing just the last few years now all reside in the loft – not very easy to get at and taking up space.  So, I’ve decided it’s time to digitise. I had already been keeping Word versions of particularly informative emails in folders on my PC – a folder for each person and named First Name and  Surname (on the basis that I’m more likely to remember most first names rather than most surnames). The actual files are titled “Date – Brief description of the information contained”. The digitised letters will go into these folders. A few days ago I started on the ‘A’s  and having got through five names have already discovered the following:

  • The filenames  need to include the names of the people concerned, i.e. “Date – First name and Surname – Brief description of the information contained”, to ensure that each file is clearly identified.
  • For people I’ve lost touch with or who have died (all of the first five sets of letters I’ve dealt with have fallen into one of these two categories), I decided to scan all of their letters into a single PDF File and to store them in a special folder called “XX – Lost touch or dead”. The filenames of the PDFs are “First name and second name – XX – relationship with me, start and end dates of the letters contained”.
  • The first set of letters I dealt with were some 45 years old  and I’d forgotten the surname. Luckily I was eventually able to find it in my digitised memento files (so they do have a use!). However, it’s clearly possible that, especially for old items, some salient information could be lost forever.
  • Assembling these collections of letters and looking through them brought back many memories and prompted thoughts about the relationship I had with the individuals. In the case of one “auntie” (a lifetime friend of my mother) who I corresponded with for about 30 years (mostly through Christmas cards), I started to regret never having made the effort to meet her in person.
  • Having scanned the letters and then seeing them all collected together in a PDF document, really made me think of the value of friendships and of how little time we have on the planet. None of us really know why we are here, nor how the universe came about, and as individuals we have such a relatively short existence. I pondered that having friends who we can share our thoughts in the midst of our uncertain brief time on earth, is precious indeed.
  • I tore up the physical letters after I had digitised them, and , of course, felt a wrench as I did so.  Undoubtedly the physical objects possess characteristics of touch, smell and presence that won’t be reproduced in the digital version. However, the digital versions are undoubtedly much more accessible. How much I’ll refer to them in the future, and what other uses I may put them to, are interesting questions.