When I was young, I used to write everything down. I used to write long love letters to the first boy who stole my heart, promising that one day I’d return to him and we would be together forever. I kept diaries full of anger, love, hate, lust, all the emotions that fill a teenaged girl’s heart. I don’t know where those things are now and I’m not sure I really want to know. The one thing I do know is that I don’t want them to enter into public domain. They were private thoughts and feelings that should remain secreted in the hearts of two young people who will never be able to recapture the innocence or the intensity of their first love.
Why am I bringing this up here? Because I read this post at the Beaver Archivist and I totally understand what Terry’s grandmother is saying. The love letters between her husband and herself were for their eyes only, no matter what insight family members may have gleaned from reading them.
As archivists, we are often charged with going through the personal photographs and papers of people who may or may not be long gone. So where do we draw the line between what is historically necessary and what is intrusionary? Often times we cannot work under the assumption that family members have already gone through documents and other memorabilia to remove any potentially embarrassing, harmful or deeply personal belongings. Sometimes, as was the case when I worked on former Congressman Joseph McDade’s papers, there are just boxes and boxes of documents and photographs. In those boxes were letters from mothers who lost their sons in Vietnam and fathers who just wanted to congratulate the congressman for being a “good Irish boy.” However, there were also papers pertaining to divorces and other legal matters and it was up to me to determine whether this material should be kept and whether or not it had any historical value.
As an archivist and a historian, I could see the value in maintaining these documents because they showed the diversity of the congressman’s constituency. It showed the breadth of issues that the congressman had to wrestle with on a regular basis. However, the librarian in me who advocates for patron privacy wanted to take the documents and burn them much like Terry’s grandparents did with their love letters. I’m sure when those people wrote letters to Congressman McDade, they had no idea that their problems would someday become part of the public domain. Yes, there are privacy constraints on when those documents can be released but still they exist and they are a part of legislative/congressional history.
I say this as I am now in the process of putting pictures from our archives onto flickr. I’m being careful not to put pictures up that have no historical or cultural relevance to the University. However, I am trying to include pictures that are representative of the history of our University first as a women’s college and now as a co-ed institution. And as I go through the letters that sometimes accompany the pictures and I smile at the side notes and the insights into the personalities of the individuals pictured, I wonder if someday, someone will find my letters, smile, gently fold them back up and think those were between us….