Image of a letter from early 20th century

A love letter, from deep within the archives of the Library of Congress

Lately I’ve been going through collections of letters from the early 20th century, and once again I’m struck by how rich and detailed such letters can be, and how much they reveal about the era in which they were written and about the people who wrote them. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “In a Man’s Letters…his soul lies naked….” This of course begs the question, what will future historians do when they seek to write about our own age, given that no one writes letters anymore, except maybe when sending a thank-you note or condolences?

On first consideration all that seems to await these future Macaulays, Toynbees and Schlesingers is despair and career retraining. But wait: Could it be that future chroniclers may in fact end up with a much richer array of materials to choose from? They’ll of course have personal diaries–mounds of them, given the fad of “journaling.” And they’ll have emails and the stacks of documents yielded by our penchant for suing each other to oblivion. But beyond these, future historians may well have tools that I for one would love to have been able to use for my own books.

Google Earth, for example: Street-level images of cities around the world could provide future writers with an incredible window onto how we all lived our lives, revealing what we wore and drove, what kinds of buildings appeared on our streets, and how we ran our cities. Ditto for Facebook pages and timelines.

But what I’m newly curious about, as the holder of a new Twitter account (@exlarson), is how Tweets and Twitter streams will figure in future historical narratives of our time. Much depends, of course, on how and whether Twitter messages will even be accessible to historians. I certainly hope so. They could be invaluable for providing a sense of immediacy to chronicles of past events, especially in the case of major disasters or geopolitical crises, in the same way that telegrams do for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In doing research for my book, Isaac’s Storm, I wish I’d had access to the Twitter streams of residents of Galveston, Texas, as the great hurricane of September 1900 approached. What a powerful tool for building narrative suspense! Minute buy minute reports from all over the city–until, of course, the storm knocked out power and broadband lines and tore satellite dishes from peoples’ rooftops.

There will always be historians, and the best of them will get as creative as they can in tapping unexpected sources. So, no letters–that’s pretty much a certainty–but it’s possible historians won’t miss them at all.