I was watching BookTV on C-Span2 yesterday (I’ll pause here while you laugh at that). Historian Heather Ewing was talking about her new book “The Lost World of James Smithson.” If you don’t know who Smithson is, you’re not alone. He was the illegitimate son of a Duke, a man of science in the early 1800s and the person who donated his fortune to the United States government to create "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men" which would bear his name. It took the government nearly twenty years to decide how to spend the money and finally establish the Smithsonian Institute.
He experienced many disasters in his life, including the loss of most of his personal possessions. So how did Ms. Ewing learn so much about his life?
By reading letters. Long, hand-written correspondence to him, from him and about him.
Historical research often includes letters written by and about the subject being researched. Generations ago, people wrote letters to acquaintances and family and these tomes served as a chronicle of their lives and times.
Letters could be three or four pages of opinions and information, spelled out\in great detail. Collect enough of them and you have a reasonably complete, personal picture of someone’s life.
What will future generations learn about us from our written communication?
OMG did u c idol?
We don’t write letters any more, especially Americans younger than Boomer age. Our written communication is in fragmented emails, consisting of short sentences or half-sentences which are often deleted as quickly as they are read and answered. Instant Messaging and texting might be even more common than email, and those exchanges are almost never saved. Blogs may showcase our lives but they’re usually more public than personal.
Maybe it won’t matter because our lives are chronicled in media other than pen and paper. We have ubiquitous TV, film, video, cell phone cams, etc.
Or maybe it will matter because these records of our lives are much more easily altered or deleted than hand-written history.
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