The Blog

'Not Google Waving, but Drowning?': Digital Literary Archives

Many emails now being created, and thus potentially archived by libraries, are the contemporary equivalent not of paper letters, but of phone calls - which, with few exceptions, were unrecorded, and really were lost to history.

In letters sold by Sotheby's in 2008, science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote:

When, eighteen years ago, I started moonlighting at Time-Life on 2001: A Space

Odyssey, the original artefact was a messy MS [manuscript], which had at least been touched by a human hand. What's the going rate in the rare book trade for Odyssey II- a 5 inch diskette (single side, soft sector, single density, reinforced hole)? Until I know, I won't press the ERASE button.

Clarke's questioning of the value of emerging forms of electronic communication and composition was posed in 1989, but over 20 years later, it remains a topic of debate.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a profile by Barry Newman of Ken Lopez, a dealer in literary archives. Lopez arranges the sale of 'the flotsam of authorship' (authors' drafts and notes, letters, diaries... everything up to and including 'William Faulkner's laundry list') to often well-financed North American college libraries, where they support teaching and research. The acquisition of a totemic literary archive can be a vital part of raising the profile of a university, especially when--as was sometimes the case with the University of Texas at Austin, or Emory University in Georgia--acquisitions included the collections of well-known overseas writers, with all the attendant controversy over 'national loss' of cultural property.

However, according to the article, Lopez is more concerned by the survival of the literary artefact itself, and expressed a more literal fear of 'loss' through authors' increasing use of electronic media (so-called 'born-digital' archives of emails, word documents, blogs, etc.).

According to the article, Lopez's 'emphasis is on the paper'. He worries that 'digitization has made correspondence more searchable but less revealing', and that word processing has obscured the process of writing: 'the archaeology of it, seeing paths not taken... at this point, that'll all be lost.'

I wonder if this is really the case, and whether in fact it's a case of paper versus digital at all.

Many emails now being created, and thus potentially archived by libraries, are the contemporary equivalent not of paper letters, but of phone calls- which, with few exceptions, were unrecorded, and really were lost to history.

Moreover, emerging technology allows changes within drafts to be captured for posterity, while the ways in which writers engage with new technologies is altering the attributes of the written document: the ease and immediacy of email, or twitter, yields an unmediated candour often absent from carefully constructed formal letters, while the simplicity of editing tools of even the most basic word processing software permits a degree of redrafting and polishing that would have been unfeasible in an analogue age. Unquestionably, therefore, what Don DeLillo once termed the 'awesome accumulation . . . of first draft pages'--what Lopez terms 'the archaeology of it'--need in no way be lost to posterity for writers working in the digital sphere.

In fact, it's unlikely in any case that paper will completely disappear from archives. Collections, like that of the poet Wendy Cope acquired by the British Library in 2011, are most often hybrid archives; in the case of Cope that meant both physical paper manuscripts (67 poetical notebooks, unpublished memoir, letters, school reports...) as well as born-digital elements (over 40,000 emails).

This hybrid kind of archive--an email commenting on a hard copy literary draft; a Word document printed out and annotated by hand--is likely to be the shape of most archives in the years to come, and for that reason it is crucial not only to archive the digital material, but to relate its archiving to the authors' paper documents. Indeed, at the recent Modern Languages Association (MLA) gathering in Boston, MA, digital guru Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, described his findings from research at the Microsoft archives into the development of MS Word: 'Software begets paper', he concluded, revealing that 95% of the Microsoft archive was in paper form.

That's not to say that we shouldn't think critically about new forms of digital archives and scholarship. The backlash against so-called 'Digital Humanities' (DH) has begun in earnest, especially in North American universities, with its utopian possibilities being balanced by concerns over what one panel at the MLA termed 'the dark side of Digital Humanities', and the implications of Wendy Chun's claim that 'software is ideology'. 'Not google Waving', as one delegate had it, 'but Drowning'.

In terms of digital literary archives, one of the lessons for today's archivists is that so-called e-manuscripts are highly unstable, and need early curatorial intervention to secure them against the threats of technological obsolescence. This means that the writers involved become increasingly aware of interest in their papers, and for novelist Jonathan Franzen, this changes everything: 'Unfortunately, I think that once writers become self-conscious about preserving archival material, the game is over...I also don't see how you resist the temptation to select material that suggests the most flattering narratives. And not just select, but actively create!'

'What is no longer archived in the same way', we are reminded by Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever, 'is no longer lived in the same way'...and new forms of digital archives will have wide-ranging implications for the ways that society experiences and remembers well as for Mr Lopez's laundry lists.