February 7, 2011

038: Occupational hazards

While sorting through several reams of correspondence today, most of which was printed-out emails, it occurred to me that it's kind of strange to have a job where I have to go through other people's letters.  Not to mention the fact that I usually have to at least skim the contents to make sure everything's going in the right place.  90% of these letters and emails were written without any thought of the possibility that someone outside of the sender and recipient would ever read them.  Normally, the correspondence I see is fairly professional, but in the last five years, I've seen some very personal letters sent to poets, some very surprising emails criticizing the professional conduct of well-known colleagues, and some frankly hilarious notes-to-self in the mix.  There is an inherent voyeuristic element to reading what strangers write to each other with the expectation of confidentiality, and while I try not to be nosy (because there are ethical issues involved here, obviously), it is interesting to get a peek behind the curtain on occasion.  And now, when everyone is trying to go paperless, there may be fewer opportunities for scholars to get those glimpses behind the public figures with the ephemeral nature of electronic communication.  I can't tell you how many researchers have read the correspondence and notes of the writers and poets whose papers are housed at my alma mater's archives, and it's a little disturbing to think that future students, biographers, etc., won't have the same resources for their research.

Of course, there's also a strong argument for paper shredders when you consider the fact that I came across a famous Hollywood actress's Social Security number several times in multiple files.  Be smart, people.  Seriously.


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