For the past few summers, I’ve been most grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel and complete research in the archives. When I first started my archival research, I imagined old, dusty corners of the library filled with fragile paper, enhanced by the smell of old books.
My visions were brought to a screeching halt when I encountered the reading room: a usually well-lit area of large desks and lamps, supervised by library specialists, who pull out boxes or folders of the researcher’s materials.
This summer has been no different. While many embark on exotic or scenic destinations for summer break, I find myself drawn to these reading rooms, where I pour over cramped handwriting scattered across delicate pages and make connections between correspondence, drafts and final literary texts. Journals and diaries have often been my sources of fascination; this year, however, correspondence has captured my interest.
The art of letter-writing and postcard-sending has certainly not been lost in the 21st century – not yet, anyway. I still enjoy sending out Christmas cards and thank-you notes written by hand to family and friends, though I have noticed the decrease in my receipt of similar objects.
The material and often intimate art of crafting a well-thought out response has been lost in the age of 140-character tweets and the immediacy of e-mail. After all, learning cursive – which was such a high point for me – is already removed from many curriculums.
As I’ve been looking into the literary archives and the richness that such handwritten letters and ephemera contain, I’ve begun to wonder what our 21st century archives will look like in future.
Will our usage of emojis and GIFs convey a sense of cleverness and amusement or reveal what has been lost in our gravitation toward technological mediation?
The most significant loss has been, to my way of thinking, a sense of intimacy and closeness.
My friends and family know that I love receiving cards – anniversary, birthday, Christmas – any holiday that elicits a card.
It’s not just the receipt of the tangible object though; for me, I look first at the handwritten note inside. The Hallmark-sappy note prescribed by the vendor holds amusement, but it’s usually the thought behind that, which is crafted personally for me, that I value most. It’s the feeling of closeness – despite the many miles of distance between the sender and recipient.
For that one moment, the handwriting speaks volumes: the thoughts of the sender pour out to the ear of the recipient.
Our handwriting says something unique about us. Each of our hands is individual and changes over time. In handwriting, you can tell when a person is rushed, tired, excited. It can convey a particular emotion that is nonexistent in the terseness of an e-mail or a post on social media.
I find myself reading and re-reading e-mails to try and ascertain the emotion behind them: Is this person irritated or annoyed, perhaps, or just in a rush out of the door?
More and more, I find that as a community, we seem to be losing a sense of our connectedness to others. Gatherings on the porch and unlocked doors – stories told to us by our grandparents and great-grandparents – are no longer the norm. Instead, we find isolation and detachment. Is this the story that our own archives will tell?
Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.