A few months ago, I went to an intriguing talk given by Lorcan Dempsey, who is a leading authority on the role of libraries in the digital world. One of the slides in his presentation really made me sit up. The context was an account of how different academic libraries are going about the archiving of digital material. The slide in question focused on Emory University, a wealthy, private research university in Atlanta, Georgia.
Like many such institutions, it has been buying up the papers of well-known writers and already has a fine collection of Irish scribblers in its archives.But it also has the papers of Salman Rushdie and this was the subject of the slide that startled me.
Why? Because it showed that Emory’s Rushdie archiveincluded not only the writer’s papers, but also his old computers and hard drives. And there, on the slide, was the symbol for an old Apple Macintosh computer and in its directory listing was a folder entitled, simply, “My Money”. And at that moment, if you will forgive the pun, the penny dropped.
I’ve always associated creative writers with paper, which is ridiculous given that virtually all of them have been using word-processors for decades. I’m accustomed to newsreel footage of police squads descending on the homes of suspected criminals and leaving with every electronic device on the premises. But the idea of university archivists turning up at Rushdie’s apartment and taking away every computer, hard drive, CD-Rom disk and USB stick in his possession had never crossed my mind. And yet that’s what involved if you buy somebody’s “papers” these days.
Why Rushdie? Well, says Erika Farr, Emory’s director of born-digital initiatives: “Rushdie’s archive is pretty remarkable and high profile. It’s a perfect one to start with. Much of his archival material after the 1980s, including daily calendars, virtual sticky notes,email correspondence and first drafts of novels, never existed on paper. We have close to his entire digital life up to 2006.”
Emory has been around since 1836 and has an endowment of $4.7bn, so we can assume that Rushdie’s digital legacy will be preserved. But what about the rest of us? Until a few years ago, we were like Rushdie, keeping our digital assets on the fragile hard drives of our PCs and laptops and almost never backing them up. Then came “cloud computing, with its promise of ubiquitous availability and secure back-up, and the flight from the PC began. As we cheerfully embarked on communicating our thoughts via evanescent media such as SMS and Twitter, storing our photographs on Flickr and Facebook, keeping our email messages on Gmail and Hotmail, did we ever give a thought to how much of this will endure beyond our lifetimes?
Probably not. What that means is that we are – carelessly or unwittingly –consigning the records of our lives to the digital shredder. The inescapable fact of life is that we die. Yea, even Facebookers: one estimate puts the number of US Facebook users who die annually at around 375,000. What happens to all those photographs and wall-posts and status updates? Will their authors have given their password to someone close to them? Or taken out an account with Entrustet, which will enable them to specify which of their digital assets will be preserved and which destroyed?
Again, the answer is: probably not. Some people may not be all that bothered by the thought that no personal records of them will endure.
But many of us would regard it as intolerable. Think of the pleasure we get from old family photographs or the delight that comes from clearing out an attic and finding boxes of love letters, school reports, our first exercise books and old appointment diaries. The contemporary versions of these personal documents are mostly stored either on obsolescent PC hard drives or on the servers of internet companies,protected by a password.
So the chances are that when historians come to write the history of our times, they will find a yawning gap in the record. The doings of the great and powerful, of the likes of Rushdie and of institutions that endure beyond the lifespan of commercial companies, will be available and readable. But the documents that tell how the rest of us lived, learned and loved will have effectively vapourised.
And the moral? If you keep your documents online, print them off. On archival-grade paper if possible. And store them in the attic.