01/25/2012 05:16 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Write a Letter or Send an E-mail?

After my mother Beatrice died at 99, I sat down one rainy day to read a file of letters she had left behind. I was startled to turn back the clock many, many years. Here was a letter written by my grandmother Ruth on July 30, 1938. Grandma had just found out that she was dying of cancer.

"I realized the end was near when I had a hemorrhage from the bowel and thought it best to drop you these few lines. I am not one bit disturbed in the thought of passing. I bid you a fond farewell. The bleeding must have come from something inside. I do not know what. These are a few instructions I wish you to do. Just the most reasonable casket that can be bought and cremation. I am grateful to have been allowed to stay this long to have gotten you started on the right road."

My mother and father had divorced when I was 10 years old. I was liviing with her in Denver. My father wrote me a 1940 "Christmas Day" letter from New York where he lived. Years later, here I sat reading it.

"My darling Son, I want you to know that Dad loves you very dearly and also that you must, when in doubt, advise with him as two hands are better than one. Many times we are faced with problems that just seem to have too many answers. When this happens I want you to stop, look and listen and just say: there is a fellow, my Dad, whom I can place before all the facts and I know he will give me an honest, unselfish opinion. This means you can't ever say: This is terrible. I haven't a living soul I can turn to. Remember this offer stands in all kinds of weather, under all conditiions, and whatever the facts be, good or bad."

Both Grandma's and Dad's letters are now contained in the Malcolm Boyd Collection at Boston University, the permanent archive of my life's work, which was established on May 22, 1970. The guiding force at Boston was Howard B. Gotlieb, an ebullient scholar and cultural entrepreneur who attracted the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., actress Bette Davis, poet Robert Frost, novelist W. Somerset Maugham and dozens of others to donate their collections to his loving care.

I remember one day when I couldn't for the life of me find an autobiographical item I sought. I telephoned Howard to express my frustration. "I've apparently lost my ability to place my hand on virtually anything I need," I deplored, thinking of the many crates containing pieces of my work at Boston. "Ah!" Howard interjected. "But just think. You have gained an archivist." Indeed I had. And a close friend.

Yet I wonder if this is really a helpful or optimistic moment for the nation's and the world's array of archives. Speaking for myself, I send far fewer (and more sparse) additions several times a year to my archive in Boston. Why? Because I "correspond" essentially via e-mail. No more do I write "searching" letters "in depth" at private or public levels of communication. Sometimes the telephone is helpful, especially if another human voice can play a major role. In fact, it is a huge luxury to be able to spend a full hour in a wonderful private conversation. But the ambitiously perceptive letters of old, often addressing major themes in life, seem more and more extinct.

A great virtue of Gotlieb's pioneering work with archives was his bold emphasis on "living." Howard helped to change archives from "dead" to "living." In the past, when a public figure expired, a family member or work associate would often move swiftly to eliminate essential documents that might prove controversial. Ours is a much more open age for communication.

How do I feel about such archives (including my own at Boston University) from the standpoint of a public figure who's being archived? As someone who is vocationally spiritual, I welcome openness and dissemination of information. I believe strongly in sharing communication about one's life instead of seeking to hide it. I appreciate it when people communicate freely. It enables community.

We need ancestors whom we may honor and thank in a number of ways. However, this requires a certain knowledge of them. Our best teachers concerning them are often books and/or films. A memoir or autobiography can be an incredibly useful means of communication. So can a biography. Of course, so can personal contact or, at least, a chance to meet. I like being enabled to tell a number of persons how much I admire them and on occasion to say thanks. A splendid result of this is the celebration of diversity. I welcome it. I don't want flat uniformity and sameness. I welcome someone's being "different." An archive helps us to understand this more clearly and practice this more deliberately.

My advice? In addition to e-mails, sit down and write a few long, detailed, personal, honest letters expressing your ideas and feelings. Write them in longhand, if you still know how to do that.

(Editor's note: Boyd's life is the subject of "Black Battle, White Knight: The Authorized Biography of Malcolm Boyd" by Michael Battle, Seabury Books).