From Word 1, historical data will be accessible

Digital materials pose problems for archivists, but, Zoë Corbyn learns, they are meeting the challenge

February 19, 2009

From Charles Darwin to Emily Bronte, scholars spend years poring over the personal archives of significant literary and scientific figures.

But what if your research subject hails from the modern era - where emails and electronic documents have largely replaced handwritten drafts and letters?

The first conference to address the challenge of curating personal digital archives was held at the British Library in London last week.

"Most of the collections that we are getting in now are hybrid collections that have some digital and physical portion," said Naomi Nelson, a speaker at "Digital Lives" and interim director for the manuscript, archives and rare book library at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

"(The challenge) is working out how we are going to preserve the digital portion for researchers, make it accessible to them and allow for its seamless use with the physical portion."

Binary bonanza

As an example, she lists a current project: the conservation of the digital records of Salman Rushdie. In 2007, the library acquired a collection that included his desktop computer, three laptops, an external hard drive and a smartphone.

The issues with preserving and organising digital archives are manifold, she said.

First, there are technological hurdles. Curators need to have the programs that created the files in order to read them, which can be difficult to do if the software is obsolete. Moreover, documents stored on floppy disks, CDs and DVDs may not last beyond 10 or 20 years.

There are major issues, too, with the long-term preservation of digital archives - a difficulty in "future-proofing" that does not exist with paper.

Also, it is important to ensure authenticity because researchers need to have confidence that records have not been altered by the archiving process.

The main aim is to preserve context, Dr Nelson said. "We want people to be able to see these records the way that they were created and worked with. When we transfer the files forward in time to new systems, we don't want to lose the wonderful old interfaces that creators were using."

She likened it to the potential for loss if a handwritten letter were retyped. The text would be there, but its richness would be diminished.

Jamie Andrews, head of modern literary manuscripts at the British Library, agreed.

"A writer might have written something ten years ago in WordPerfect. We can emulate that, to see it as the writer saw it, or take the file and make it accessible in the modern version (but this) obviously destroys some of the original characteristics and environment."

Computer scientists are working on ways to emulate context.

"In the next few years, I think we are going to see some really good prototypes," Dr Nelson said.

But it is more than just the data stored on hard drives and CDs that need preserving, Dr Andrews said.

Cloud capture

One significant future problem he envisages is that of preserving the work people create away from their computers in the so-called "cloud" of the internet, such as personal email accounts or documents stored on external servers.

"(For) any intellectual property created in a lot of these environments ... there is an extent to which the provider has some degree of ownership," he said.

Difficulties aside, Dr Andrews and Dr Nelson both see an exciting future for academics studying digital archives.

They are also quick to note that there is no fundamental problem with digital sources replacing more traditional archival content.

"The kind of information available in email can be just as interesting for researchers. People tend to be more prolific and more candid," Dr Andrews said.

"It is really quite powerful," Dr Nelson said. "Instead of having just Bronte's letters, with the computer you have the whole environment in which the writer worked. It is quite remarkable to open up someone's desktop to see how they left it, look through its file directory system and see how they organised things and how their creative life related to the rest of their life, which is also on their computer."

There are also exciting possibilities on the horizon for researchers in how they "attack" the material in terms of annotating documents and sorting them electronically.

So for those who entertain high hopes that future scholars may wish to study their own digital lives, or who are merely looking to better organise their work, do the experts have any tips?

Their suggestions range from clarifying ownership of items created in the cloud and backing up work on external hard drives in case computers fail, to retaining old computers, labelling files clearly and cataloguing them carefully.

"To a degree, some of the onus has to go back on to the creators themselves to manage their (digital lives), so that if and when the collection becomes of interest, the data still exist," Dr Andrews said.

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments