My Life as an Intern: The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Hello, my name is Candace Pine, and you may remember from my last blog post that I am interning here in the Steward and Sustain department while I’m pursuing my MLIS degree at Kent State University. I wanted to continue sharing the things I’m learning about and experiencing during my internship, so you can look forward to hearing more from me in the future!


For the past few weeks I’ve been working on item-level indexing for a collection of materials related to the Miami University – University of Reading Exchange Program. For those of you who don’t know, for a time the Philosophy department here at Miami worked out a faculty exchange program with the Philosophy department at University of Reading, which is located in England. And for those of you who also don’t know, item-level indexing means that you go through every single item in a collection and write a brief description of it that basically could be used to explain what the item is to a person who can’t actually see the item. Well, actually I did that. I wrote 31 pages worth of item-level description; you just get to read about it. Lucky you! But in all seriousness, this has been an interesting experience. I was able to practice my indexing skills, and I got to learn about the Miami University – University of Reading Exchange Program.

The reason why I wrote pages and pages of descriptions for this collection is because it is mostly made up of correspondence, so there was a lot of material to go through. The exchange program started in the 1980s, so various representatives from both universities had to write a lot of letters back and forth to each other to make arrangements (financial, living, teaching, etc.) for the instructors who participated in the exchange. So I read at least parts of all of those letters. And that made me really appreciate the art of letter writing, which is something that I feel is quickly fading away in our society today. As I read through all sorts of letters I came to see how different they are from the way we communicate today through email. The letters often had a more formal tone (even after the correspondents wrote to each other for months, or even years), and the writers would take care to add extra little details like commenting on something interesting that was going on with them, or taking the time to ask after the well-being of the recipient and their family. Writing a letter and sending it either to or from England took time, and so the writers wanted to make sure that their letters were worth it. Nowadays, business communications such as these seem to be much shorter and to the point. Now that we can communicate with each other in an instantaneous manner, we don’t feel the need to write anything elaborate anymore. I see this happen all the time in the course of my job. I can’t even begin to count the number of emails I’ve received that are only one or two sentences long and written very casually (yes, I see grammar, capitalization, and punctuation go right out the window). However, there’s nothing wrong with trying to be more efficient in our communications. As time passed and I saw the correspondents from Miami and Reading move from writing letters to writing emails, I instantly noticed how much shorter and to the point their messages were. And like I said, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it did make me feel a bit nostalgic for the days when people would take the time to write letters to each other (for business or other reasons). And as I thought about it, it also made me realize that I hardly ever physically write anything anymore – most of my communications happen via email and texting now. So I wonder what those letter writers from Miami and Reading think about how much technology has changed the way we communicate with each other. And it makes me wonder how much things will continue to change in the future. Another 20 or 30 years from now we may communicate in totally new ways, and future archivists will look at our emails and text messages and think of them as being outdated forms of communication. It’s a strange thought, but I’m sure it will happen!

Letter from Michael Goldman to Edmund Burke, March 18, 1988

Email from William McKenna to Michael Proudfoot (Yes, I think of Lord of the Rings every time I type his name), February 9, 1998