The Disappearing Digital Archive

Lauded authors often leave behind an extensive quantity of non-published writing. Letters, marginalia, drafts, notebooks, and more: only a small fraction of the writings of writers are actually published and known. Beloved authors’ unpublished materials collected are commonly collected and archived posthumously for further study.

How did they develop their ideas? Who were their inspirations? What other possibly brilliant ideas did they leave unpursued? How many terrible ideas did they discard along the way? These are questions that get to be answered thanks to these archives.

I wonder about these archives of unpublished materials in the digital age. It is unlikely that I will be considered such a lauded author at the end of my days, but let us grant that conceit for the sake of argument here. I have come “out of nowhere” to publish a string of critically acclaimed books from my mid-late thirties onwards. Upon my death, scholars are interested in my non-published writings in an effort to better interpret my works. What do they collect?

I remember printing some stories I wrote in grade five on our state-of-the-art dot matrix printer.1 I wrote it in WordPerfect 5.0 and the digital file will never be seen again.2 I’ve nearly always written anything that was allowed to typed into a computer in that way, from grade five (25 years ago) onwards. I only have a solid line on material I’ve written as recently as 11 years ago, and even then things are patchy until about seven years ago.

But this is just a matter of recency. I don’t have a planned document archival strategy, other than that they’re on my current hard drive.3 Pre-planning a strategy in order to aid the work of scholars after my death would be the height of arrogance, but there’s a much more pragmatic reason to worry about all of this: perusing my own archives could be a great source of inspiration for my own current and future writing projects.

But all of this only touches on unpublished documents. What about emails? Many authors’ letters have proved a wellspring of insight as they are later discovered, but I pity any scholar who has to dig through emails, IMs, and the like. There’s not even any guarantee that this information would remain accessible long enough to be collected, usually living as they do in “cloud” services.

And, in the realm of marginalia, there is still no satisfactory solution. Kindle and iBooks allow highlights and notes to be saved “in the cloud,” but making these notes is cumbersome, and retrieving them in any useful manner remains a quixotic waiting game. Also, what of online comments, which are a kind of marginalia?4 Not to mention all my activity across various past, present, and future social networks? Who will save my Likes?5

This is one reason I continue to write on my blog, running WordPress. It doesn’t come close to archiving everything I write, but at least things I publish here will have a moderately good chance of being future-friendly since they’re built with open-source software and published in HTML, the most widely deployed, open document standard of all time. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.

There may be a solution to all of these problems of preservation and posterity, but that’s a much more difficult issue than diagnosing the problem. We’re at a point where the chief virtue of the digital age for archival purposes is that non-digital material can be scanned and widely shared, but generally the fact that there is archival material to share comes by virtue of it not having been digital in the first place.

  1. It printed a page per week or something. 
  2. It would have been saved on a 3 1/2″ floppy disk, which 1) I don’t possess, 2) I don’t have the ability to even read, and 3) would probably be magnetically corrupted with time. 
  3. The wonderful thing about text files (or text-only word processor files) is that they take up very little space. 
  4. coComment was an attempt to collate your blog comments into a central location. Current systems like Disqus, IntenseDebate, and LiveFyre attempt to do something similar, but only on sites that use their commenting widget. 
  5. Someone think of the Likes. 

2 responses to “The Disappearing Digital Archive”

WordPress Default is proudly powered by WordPress

Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS).