Lately I’d been having some trouble logging into my work e-mail, and when I called the tech guys they discovered that in the process of some changes to the system my entire account had accidentally been deleted. They were able to set up a new one for me, but all my old messages, both incoming and outgoing, vanished into whatever ethereal realm is reserved for defunct e-mail accounts.
It’s no great loss as far as posterity is concerned, since most of these e-mails dealt with mundane matters—students apologizing for missed classes, reminders that I needed to submit paperwork, and so on. But it got me thinking about a question that I ponder from time to time. What is the advent of electronic communication going to mean historians of the future who will be trying to study us?
For some scholars, it probably won’t mean much at all. Modern bureaucracies still generate reams of paperwork. As organizations both public and private have grown and become more complex in the last 130 years or so, they’ve churned out mountains of internal documentation. When historians write about the presidencies of Bush and Obama a century from now, they’ll have plenty of written evidence to handle. Many organizations archive the documents they generate electronically; some of them, in fact, are required by law to do so.
The difference, I think, will involve unofficial, personal communication. For biographers, personal letters are an indispensable tool. Even historians writing about public events rely on personal documentation to gather information. My own graduate research about King’s Mountain involved reading a lot of personal letters. Until comparatively recently, it wasn’t uncommon for ordinary people to leave behind a cache of letters and other personal papers.
But what about now? Speaking for myself, I’ve sent and received plenty of personal e-mails, but as for hard copies, I’ve got nothing but birthday cards and the occasional cover letter. Since personal e-mail accounts are hidden behind passwords and subject to deletion, will historians of the future will be able to access the correspondence of ordinary folks like you and I?
Of course, hard copies aren’t immune to time, either. The great Tennessee historian J.G.M. Ramsey accumulated a treasure trove of documents about the eighteenth-century frontier, some of which he used to prepare his massive book on the Volunteer State’s early days. Unfortunately for future students of Tennessee history, Ramsey was an ardent Confederate, so when a Unionist firebrand torched his home, his remarkable archive went up in smoke. One advantage of electronic documents is that they’re easy to back up.
Maybe future historians looking to document the lives of everyday Americans will just have to use different sources. Instead of reading caches of family letters, they’ll pore over home videos. Or perhaps they’ll have access to some sort of archived social media, in which case we’re not going to come off all that well…