Girl Reading a Letter, Vermeer (1663)The advent of email has everyone keeping many more letters than they ever would have had they been written long hand. For those interested in preserving personal histories the fate of correspondence is the one conundrum that keeps archivists awake at night. With email the problems become even more complex: how to store it, how to index it, what is appropriate to keep and will any family member even be able to access it in 30 years when software programs change and digital storage becomes increasingly splintered. With all the new social software applications my personal data is spread over a half dozen online companies already. A trend which will only increase. I visited the Internet Archive the other day in search of a web page I created in 1996 and came away frustrated and disappointed I didn’t have the foresight to save it myself. But then, what if I did? Would it be on a Syquest disk somewhere? A zip drive? a floppy? Who knows. I keep it all, but that doesn’t mean it’s accessible.

Which brings me to the idea of ethical wills. Although the term has been around a long time, I don’t like it because it is too easily confused with living wills, or other legal documents and it isn’t a legal document at all. Its purpose is really very simple and can be created by anyone at any time. For instance, soon to be married or expectant couples can use an ethical will as a way to pause and reflect on values important to them, for parents who’ve legally given up or lost custody of their children through divorce it provides something meaningful to pass along. For seniors it provides opportunity to reflect on their life experiences, interpret them, and preserve this for future generations. In all cases, creating an ethical will provides a sense of completion and peace with the past. It doesn’t need to be complicated or complex. Here are some examples. These letters become a part of a legacy as much as any family heirloom. I’ve got this idea about a digital shoebox in the corner of my internet closet and I often think about what I would place inside. Don’t you?

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