GW Cohort 9 Publishing eNewsletter

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The electronic age a boon and hindrance for historians

A recent NPR story highlighted how electronic communication has become both a help and an obstacle for historians and biographers. I was a history major in college–back in the early days of email, admittedly–but this angle never occurred to me. I mourned the loss of my college email when my computer died (and subsequent ones weren’t able to open the program); I loved being able to review my college experience by reading old emails. And then…gone.

The same is happening regarding lives much more interesting than my own (though certainly there’s something to be said for the record of a “typical” life at any given moment in time). Instead of the old-fashioned letter, people send emails. And we have no idea how long those will last, or how retrievable they’ll be. No password? Old software? Poof. Gone. And perhaps as frustrating to future authors and lovers of literature as the lost letters from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. If everything is saved electronically, if a historian can just search an author’s records through a university’s portal, how amazingly helpful is that? If you’re doing a literary analysis of Salman Rushdie’s use of the moon in his writing, instead of having to spend hours poring through his writings, a few clicks, and you’re good!

But then, to play devil’s advocate…will that just lead to a weaker relationship between the history/biographer/researcher and the subject? What happens if research becomes too easy?