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The Role of E-mail for 21st-Century Historians and Biographers

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The Role of E-mail for 21st-Century Historians and Biographers

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This article was inspired by a recent voyeuristic episode in my life. I purchased a used Macintosh PowerBook at an electronics bazaar and spent the first evening browsing the hard drive to see what programs and goodies the former owner left for me. There was an icon on the desktop called "mail" which turned out to start Microsoft Outlook.

Being an avid hater of MS products, I`ve never tried Outlook before. So I was trying to figure out how to delete the various users that were listed on the system. I gave up trying to delete the users and switched to deleting the messages to free up some diskspace. Well, my curiosity forced me to read a few letters (maybe 5%). Although most of the letters were about business, I was able to piece together an intriguing story about a rocky marriage between a hot tempered business owner and his pregnant wife. The more I read; the more I hated the villainous husband. "That poor woman, how does she put up with such an arrogant jerk?" I kept thinking. Finally, after satisfying my voyeuristic nature, I mass deleted the remaining files. But I could not help thinking that somebody had sold me an antique desk without cleaning out the drawers first.

Still, it was very interesting to piece together a brief portion of someone`s life via e-mail letters. Letters have always been important sources of information for biographers and researchers. Indeed the letters of famous people from Vaclav Havel to Virginia Woolf have been collected, edited and published into books. Luckily for biographers, letters have a "romantic" feel to them and keeping them stored in neat, string-tied bundles or haphazardly strewn into boxes/drawers is something that many people (famous or not) have done throughout history. People like to save their letters for nostalgic trips into a past time.

As we close the door to the 20th-century behind us, the use of letters as a primary form of communication between friends and lovers is declining. In a generation or two, "snail mail" letter writing might be virtually dead (forgive the pun). What`s a 21st-century historian or biographer to use instead of letters to help recreate someone`s past life, e-mail?

Although I was able to create a story from the orphaned Outlook messages, most of what I did was very non-researcher-like and many gaps were filled with my vivid imagination. E-mail generally is not as good a medium for historians and biographers as traditional mail is. E-mail is psychologically very different from a "normal" letter, so this creates some problems for our 21st-century researcher.

First, e-mail messages tend to be much shorter and give much less insight into the personal life and mind of the writer. The next problem is that it is so easy to dispose of e-mail. Personal letters have weight, both physically and psychologically for many people, which makes it very hard for them to throw the letters away. E-mail has no physical weight and can be "trashed" with a click of a button. For me (and I assume for others) there is little psychological inhibitions for deleting e-mail. The only consideration is if the message contains important info (URL`s, phone numbers, date of a meeting, etc.) which we`ve been too lazy to physically write down or copy into some other program. A third problem is that Internet service providers often put a limit on the size of your mailbox. If your friends e-mail you a lot of pictures, sound files, and programs, then your mailbox quota will be filled very quickly. If you are not in the habit of deleting e-mail messages (like many of my colleagues at work), then this can quickly become a problem. Finally, there is the danger of hackers reading your messages. Although some people might actually be worried that thieves might steal their bundled letters in the antique desk drawer at home, for most people this is a non-issue. On the other hand, many people worry about hackers reading their e-mail (among other things).

All of these psychological differences between letters and e-mail messages make the 21st-century biographer`s duty much harder, unless we change our attitudes toward e-mail messages. We need to expand the length of messages to loved loves from "R U OK? Long time no e- mail. Pls write back" to something more substantial. Short quick messages still have their place in our society, but an occasional long, old- fashioned letter via e-mail would be a nice change. The next thing is that people should start thinking about saving messages instead of deleting them. If diskspace or hackers are a problem, then save the messages onto a floppy disk (encrypted if you are really paranoid, and that will also make future historians work for their money). For those of you who love books and letters (that should be nearly all of Ikaros`s readers), print out letters that have special meaning for you, fold them up and tie them into bundles with a string.

Oh, and should you sell your computer, make sure that you delete any data that could embarrass you. Or else the next owner might be recreating your life`s story from the scraps and fragments you left behind.

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FULK, Ted S.. The Role of E-mail for 21st-Century Historians and Biographers. Ikaros [online]. 1999, ročník 3, číslo 9 [cit. 2019-09-17]. urn:nbn:cz:ik-10389. ISSN 1212-5075. Dostupné z: http://ikaros.cz/node/10389

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