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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Schlundt story leads to reflection on the transience of the digital

By Brendan Gibbons
July 19, 2013 | 7:10 p.m. CDT

In May, the MU News Bureau included the following in its explanation of  Pickard Hall's closure:

"Portions of Pickard Hall still contain some radiation that resulted from experiments conducted in the 1900s."

I was never satisfied with this minimal back story. I thought there might be a more interesting story to uncover, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I would never have been able to piece together the story of Herman Schlundt’s radium and thorium refinery without his letters and notes. Schlundt probably would never have imagined a reporter sifting through these primary documents more than 75 years after his death.

After Schlundt died in 1937, his daughter and the MU chemistry department donated his huge collection of papers to the State Historical Society of Missouri and the University Archives. If it weren’t for these donations and the diligent work of the staff who keep them safe and organized, many details of Schlundt’s life would have remained unknown.

Today, this type of information flows through email, not letters. I wonder how  someone will put a story like this together 80 years from now.

In the information age, not all information is equally available. Public relations documents, surface-level news briefs and promotional materials have been fruitful and multiplied. Original material, the kind of information a reporter can actually use, is harder to come by.

It’s strange to think that, despite current technology, the words you scribble on paper could be more enduring than those you type on a keyboard. But that's not because it isn't being collected and stored. 

Almost every keystroke I’ve ever typed online — social media messages, emails, search queries — is stored somewhere, mostly on the servers of Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook and (from my middle school days) MySpace.

The National Security Agency might have even vacuumed some of it up, though it’s still too early tell with certainty who the agency monitors, what they collect and why.

I have access to much of this information, but you don’t. The only way people in the future could read my correspondence is if my family petitions Google to hand over the contents of my mail account.

I doubt anyone would be interested in reading my correspondence. But what about people more powerful than me, those whose decisions affect many others and influence future generations?

These are questions I can’t answer, but I do know this:

Because we can’t know today what information will be available tomorrow, getting the story right today will be crucial for future historians and journalists.

I believe true reporters recognize that today's opportunities seized or not seized — and risks taken or not taken — will determine what kind of tomorrow we have. Their goal in news coverage should be to explicitly define the terms of a transaction. What did we gain by taking a certain action? What did we lose?

I attempted to define these terms with my story about Herman Schlundt, and I will let you decide whether I pulled it off. The story would have undoubtedly been better if it had been written back then, when more information was available.

Journalists should never lose the opportunity to set the record straight today. Tomorrow, the facts might be even harder to uncover. 

Brendan Gibbons graduated in May from MU with a degree in science and agricultural journalism. He is working as a reporter at the Missourian this summer before heading off to a new adventure.