Saturday, March 12, 2011

Where Have All The Letters Gone, Long Time Passing?

Assuming that all things go according to current plan, I’ll be heading to rural Virginia on a short business/ research trip in a few months.  There are a number of loose ends on several of family lines that I work on (one of them newly discovered just a few months ago) that need some hands-on, on-site exploration. 

Believe it or not, there are actually records out there that are not all neatly digitized and searchable on the Internet. Or even microfilmed…

Before I head off, I’ll need to review my research notes on these families, organize stuff and make a research plan. Part of all that is reviewing things in files from very long ago.

Interestingly, I started working on some of these families way back in the Dark Ages of the early 1970s.  Back then in the “pre-Net” days, long distance genealogy was considerably different.    You either went to where the records were, or you wrote lots of letters requesting information.  Seriously – I mean LOTS of letters.

If you were really bitten by the bug, you placed ads in “The Genealogical Helper” as bait for distant cousins and waited not-so-patiently for responses which would come in the form of letters to your mail box, if you were extremely lucky.  Of course, more often than not, the letters that showed up from strangers did not contain any new information – just requests for you to send THEM letters and to share the stuff YOU had.

You wrote to distant relatives you may have never even met, asking if they could send you copies of any family pictures they might have.  You wrote to churches and county clerks. You checked your mailbox daily for envelopes with their return addresses, hoping that the envelope would be thick with pictures or documents, not paper-thin, with “sorry” responses.

You knew what a SASE was, and kept them on hand.  You knew the mail carrier’s first name.

Then, one day, the letters stopped.  “The Genealogical Helper” folded.  People (including genealogists) discovered the joys of nearly instantaneous communication once listservs and email popped into existence.  O brave new world!

Letters became obsolete.

Still, there are folks like me, who save stuff.  I have files with letters and boxes with letters. There are letters I received from my mother while I was at university when JFK was still President.  There are letters from old girlfriends and letters from my wife.  There are letters I received while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. There are letters from friends around the world, each containing a tidbit or two of shared personal information . . . the kind of detail that’s otherwise easily forgotten.  

Many of those friends and relatives are now dead, but their letters form a physical bond across time and space in a way that their emails never could.  After all, their letters – each one of them crafted by hand and with care – took time, thought and some actual physical effort to produce.

As I said, I save stuff.  I have nearly every personal or genealogically related letter that I’ve ever received since the early 1960s.  Whenever I plan a research trip that involves a family line about which I’ve corresponded with other researchers, I dig out those old letter files and re-read the letters. 

Was there something I missed the first time, when I was less experienced?  Will I see something that will help me on the next field research trip?

But most of all, I just like the feel and the look of those letters, most of which are hand-written and still in their original envelopes, now brittle with age.  And, unlike today’s emails, each letter has a different “look”.  A quick instant glance at just a word or two of the handwriting tells me who sent it, even 45 years later.

Email is great and is essential in my personal and business life.  Still, I can’t say that I’ve saved every email I've ever received.   Letters, though . . .

For me, it’s still about paper and ink.

1 comment:

  1. I inherited my mother's research. Your description of the Genealogical Helper and writing letters was exactly what my mother did. Every Saturday she spent at the CT State Library. If she didn't write those letters I might have no record of it today. My descendants I'm sure will not have copies of my email correspondence. There's a lot to be said for that old form of communication.