By Alan Chabot
I began my studies at the Expatriate Archive Centre, like a lot of researchers, not exactly knowing what I’d find. Within 10+ family archives that the staff put together for me throughout my time at the EAC, I found plenty of useful and interesting information; but beyond the information that supported my research, I found myself thoroughly enjoying getting lost in the dying art of letter-writing. It is such a longstanding facet of so many cultural histories that we almost can’t imagine a world without them, but with email, mobile phones, and FaceTime/Skype technologies the art of the letter may indeed be taking its last breaths. Many only write letters for special occasions, birthdays, wedding invitations, etc., but sending cross-continental monthly letters over the span of twenty years is a form of communication no longer with us. What I found so beautiful about these exchanges is the depth of detail, care, and originality within each respective collection per person, as well as each letter. While we may update loved ones daily on what random errand we’re running or how tiring work might be, these letters were far more selective in what they shared — but simultaneously so much more descriptive in what they did discuss.
I found that as the years crept closer and closer to the modern age, my research material faded as thorough, reflective letters evolved into brief and shallow email correspondences. That’s not to say the individuals writing these exchanges changed, but rather that the technology changed how they communicated. With the ease and frequency that modern technological communications offered, beautiful letters with stamps from far-away places and drawings of a beautiful house or exotic bird became block paragraphs that were still interesting to read but sadly lacking in the same uniqueness that their letters used to hold.
I’m sure few would rather resort back to letter-writing over FaceTime and texting. However, I found myself questioning throughout my research how technology affects the way I communicate with far-away loved ones, as well as how it distracts me from genuine, undistracted reflection. Researching at the EAC made me nostalgic for a time I never even got to experience, only being 21 and growing up in the age of cell phones. As a result, it has motivated me to write letters and personal journaling more often not only for my own pleasure, but to embody my more genuine, unique sentiments in the originality of my own handwriting, a physical page, and an address that forces me to recognise the distance between myself and its recipient rather than assume the world is really as small as our cellphones make it seem.
Alan Chabot is a sophomore at Williams College in the United States studying English and sociology. He spent three weeks studying family archives at the EAC in January 2019.