People of an older generation, who remember the pleasure of writing and reading long, newsy letters sent to and received from, friends and family, may lament the fact that letter-writing seems to be something of a dying art. However, on a more positive note, it could be argued that we communicate much more now than we ever did in the past.
It is the means of communication that has changed, not the inclination to communicate. But it is certainly true that, for most of us, for most of the time, the pen is far from being mightier than the phone, and when we do write it is more and more likely to be via electronic mail or text message than by the traditional method of letter-writing.
It is undisputedly the case that there has been a steep decline in the number of a personal letters written in the traditional way, with pen on paper. The pace of life and lack of time have conspired with more rapid methods of communication – telephone, fax, email, and text messaging – against personal letter-writing. Or looked at another way, the more rapid method of communication have freed up time, time which people are now less inclined to fill by writing personal letters.
Whether this is also true of all types of formal and business correspondence is not quite so clear. Certainly, there is a marked increase in certain types of letters; we all receive piles of letters – junk mail – from companies who are trying to drum up business, and shredders and paper-recycling plants are kept busy disposing of it all.
But a fair amount of business correspondence is generated as a result of increasing affluence: think of all those letters from credit card and insurance companies and the sometimes protracted exchanges associated with buying and selling property. Despite predictions of the ‘paperless office’ that computers were supposed to bring about, the opposite seems to have happened. The very ease with which written material can be produced with word processing software has meant the overall amount of printed material – which includes letters – has increased enormously. There will be some fairly predictable consequences of the changes brought about by the new technologies, which will have an impact on certain types of research.
In future, the decrease in social letter-writing may well deprive family historians and social historians of a valuable source of information. The content of personal letters is often an accurate record of events at the time of writing, within a family and in a wider social context.
Amateur and professional genealogists hold great store by old family letters, which can be extremely informative and illuminating. The more ephemeral nature of communication via the new technologies will leave very little material for such research: telephone calls are routinely recorded only by big financial institutions and government agencies; faxes fade; not many people take the trouble to save, archive or print emails; and text messages are deleted to make room for more.
Biographers too are likely to have cause to regret the falling from the favour of letter-writing; letters, both from and to the subject of a biography, can give an extremely valuable insight into the individual’s character, temperament, relationships and circumstances.
In the past, letters were often kept as precious mementoes by the recipient, or even returned to the sender where he or she had some inkling that the content might be of historical interest. In these ways, much was preserved for posterity.