In a versatile and illuminating career, I believe I can justifiably boast that I wrote far fewer memos than I received and read. I recognize that statement makes me vulnerable to criticism, but it is a truthful report on my approach to my work life. I never was an accomplished memo writer. Oh, I could dash off a compelling memo in quick time, but I preferred the oral notice to the written note whenever possible. I guess that means I left a very skimpy paper trail.
I can now make that admission without fear, at a time when the traditional memo, a written note dealing with a specific topic, is in remission. It is an obsolete means of communication, rarely used in an era dominated by email and other forms of electronic contact.
Memos had their time in the spotlight. Every business or institution had its marathon memo authors, men and women who seemed dedicated to the format. They would generate written documents to be duplicated and distributed. Sometimes the memo was sent to a specific person, but in large institutions often there was a distribution list appended at the bottom.
The art of the memo form came to mind recently as I was trying to organize a cabinet at the office. It was there I found a supply of what were known as “From the Desk of” pads, each containing about 100 sheets. They were blank except for the legend “From the Desk of” at the top left, followed by the name of the sender imprinted just below. A space for the date was furnished at the top right.
Some pads also bore the name or logo of the company that supplied the pads free to clients as a form of advertising. The sheets were usually 5 x 8, considered to be ideal for a short note or memo. Some designs called for imprinting the familiar heading, “FYI,” and others were titled “AVO,” with the explanation, “Avoid Verbal Orders,” printed below in small type.
The top sheet of each of the three pads I found had yellowed with age, a clear indication of frequency of usage. What should I do with the pads? There were only two alternatives to be considered: save or destroy. I don’t use them, but I took the easy way and kept them in the cabinet.
As I indicated earlier, I received far more memos than I ever wrote, but I don’t recall retaining any for future reference. However, I once did riffle through a collection of memos saved for posterity by a friend with another company. The most memorable aspect of his unique collection were the contradictions and revocations. Prevailing policies were rescinded and occasionally later renewed. The messages were color-coded, written on blue, yellow or white stock, depending on the author; the boss used blue. Over an inch thick, the collection was safeguarded in a notebook and provided remarkable insight into the company’s somewhat tumultuous operation.
When I learned that Marty, the collector, was retiring, I phoned him to ask what he was doing with the memos. I felt they formed an historic collection and should be preserved, but unfortunately he had surrendered to the plea of his wife and tossed them in the previous week’s trash. Whether that collection had any historical significance, I cannot say, but it sure was fun for browsing.
There are far more efficient methods of communicating today. The memo, short for memorandum, had its heyday. It is now gone, but not forgotten. It has remained in the same linguistic family but now is listed in a different category: memorabilia.
Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.
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