Thursday, March 15, 2018

Preserving our Memories in the Digital Age

I'm holding a rare artifact right now-- it's a fan letter, written in longhand, from late December 1935. It was sent by a man from Newburyport MA to his favorite radio announcer, Howell Cullinan of WEEI in Boston. You've probably never heard of Howell, but he was someone people in the audience thought of as a friend, and they loved to listen to his program.  In addition to being a news reporter and announcer, he was also a story-teller, a raconteur, and a world-traveler; he even wrote two books about his adventures, and about his experiences in early broadcasting.

At a flea market a few months ago, I found some letters sent to him in the early to mid-1930s, and I must admit I was excited to read them; they helped me to understand how important he was to his listeners.  But I may be among the last people to read and appreciate these kinds of artifacts, since they were composed in cursive.  Fewer and fewer schools are teaching kids to write in long-hand these days. In fact, in a growing number of elementary schools, I'm told that students only learn to print; the focus is now on learning to type (since keyboard skills are necessary for online communication).

I understand. Really I do.  Times change. We're living in the digital age, and handwriting doesn't matter as much as it used to.  And yet... as a media historian, I believe we're losing something that is still important. Several weeks ago, in the Boston Globe, there was a wonderful essay about the importance of letters and notes.  The author brought up an issue I've thought about a lot:  "For historians, handwritten letters are a gold mine. So what happens when they disappear?"  (You can read the entire essay here, and it's definitely worth thinking about.  https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2018/02/25/you-got-mail-for-now/gqCidhkYwEDMSSkNJVb2WP/story.html )
 
Losing tangible aspects of our past is no trivial matter. I've written six books, as many of you know, and I couldn't have done my research without having access to handwritten notes, diary entries, postcards and letters, which were in the possession of some of the people I was researching. Being able to read them took me back to that exact time and place, and made me feel as if I were there; it made me feel closer to the folks whose lives I was studying.  Reading a 1935 fan letter, written by an actual listener, it was as if he were speaking to me in the present, talking to me about why Howell Cullinan was his favorite radio announcer.

Okay fine, I can read digitized and transcribed copies of some of these materials, but contrary to what my students believe, there is so much that is not online, so much that isn't digitized yet-- and in the case of materials from folks who weren't especially famous, so much that may never be digitized.  And while today's emails, tweets, and text messages are quick and convenient, they're also ephemeral-- they can be deleted in an instant.  There's also something impersonal about them, even when you dress them up with an emoji or add a meme.

Call me old-school, but I like to work with original handwritten documents when I can; and I like going to library archives and seeing actual historical items first-hand.  I feel the same way about viewing old photographs, old books, and old magazines-- yes, the online versions are a wonderful convenience for researchers, and I am grateful for access to them; but to hold an old publication, to look at the item itself, brings up a sense of amazement, a feeling of gratitude that somehow this part of our history has survived. (And I am sure the librarians and archivists who are reading this know exactly what I'm talking about.)

The other day, unexpectedly, I found some old photos of my mother and father from back when they were dating. Yes, I digitized several of the photos so that my friends on social media could enjoy seeing what my parents looked like in the late 1930s/early 1940s.  But holding the actual photographs was very emotional for me.  And whether it's old letters or old photos, preserving these memories, and respecting them, is worth the effort.

I'm not asking everyone to be hoarders or pack rats.  I'm simply saying that we've become a throwaway culture, where all that matters is the newest technology, and stuff that's considered "old" (or old-fashioned, like handwriting) is disposable. Maybe one day, after I'm no longer here, someone will find the fan letters I saved from my radio career, most written in cursive; and perhaps they will be curious about who I was, or why I kept them, or what these items meant.  And I wonder if there will be anyone who can explain.   

1 comment:

  1. I found a box of my grandparents' old Bibles, photos, and letters recently. My grandmother was a dutiful historian who documented every single detail about each photo she took: the full date, the place, the names of the people in the photo, and the circumstances around it. Her Bibles had handwritten margin notes, and one of them even had a handwritten note with some of her thoughts inspired by the scriptures she read. I hadn't seen her handwriting in many, many years and it was like she was right there in the room with me again.

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