I spent an enjoyable day in the personal papers of Justice Pierce Butler, which are housed at the Minnesota Historical Society. The Butler family kindly gave me permission to use these restricted papers for an article on Justice Butler that I am writing for a conference at Vanderbilt Law School next spring.
As I was reading the hand-written correspondence between Justice Butler and his various family members, friends, and colleagues, it struck me that archival research may look a bit different in the future. Justice Butler's correspondence tells such a rich story, both about Butler's professional accomplishments and his family, but also about his temperament and passions. Today, in contrast, so much correspondence takes place electronically, primarily via e-mail, and it is rare to receive a hand-written letter with the exception of greeting cards at holidays. Unlike the letters of the past, electronic communications as a general matter tend to be shorter, less personal, and do not reveal quite as much about the relationship between the sender and the person to whom the correspondence is addressed.
Besides enjoying the content of the documents, I kept asking myself the question of what the personal papers of the future will look like? Will prominent individuals donate their hard drives to document repositories in the future? Will we, as researchers, be searching servers full of electronic documents rather than reading the rich hand-written notes of the past? If the answers, as I suspect, to the foregoing questions are yes then I believe that archival research is bound to be less interesting (but perhaps easier) in the future.