22 October 2008

Archival quality.

I was reading an article in the Guardian about Doris Lessing recently turning over 113 letters to the University of East Anglia and I began thinking about how much of our literary biographies and indeed whole volumes of background material on authors relies upon that antiquated form of communication -- something permanent in its composition, but not mechanically transmitted and therefore not infinitely reproducible should the original be lost.

Very few people write letters today. Love letters, such as Lessing wrote to an RAF officer in her youth, are more likely to be text or instant messages these days. Letter writing as an activity was taken seriously; letters were cherished, stashed into drawers or boxes and saved in many cases long after the love affair or friendship ended; at the opposite extreme, letters were imbued with the emotional wreckage of poorly ended affairs, and their consumption by fire could prove cathartic.

To receive a letter from a friend or a loved one -- or even a publisher -- was a special event that consisted of more than a hello shout out. It brought local news and family updates in an age that didn't have the internet or cable television news and long distance was reserved for very special events. In artists' cases, it often brought news of current projects, artistic theories, attitudes on important social subjects of the day, etc., and that of course is what biographers and other scholars were interested in.

I wonder in our internet age, with communication as cheap as the time it takes to type a few terse sentences, if future generations will have access to the private thoughts of writers and other artists. On the one hand, the medium is ephemeral -- unless you take special steps, no hard copy of the document ever exists. On the other hand, the medium is more permanent than hand-written letters ever could be: on most systems the email is backed up and stored well beyond the individual user's ability to delete it. As more than one criminal has found out, deleting mail from the inbox and emptying the trash is not the equivalent of burning letters on the fire.

So copies exist. But unlike hardcopy handwritten letters, these copies don't fall to anyone upon the death of the author. Our email accounts as a general rule aren't enumerated among our estate's miscellaneous property. In fact, privacy concerns have led some companies to deny families access to the deceased person's email (though I don't know if the company in this particular case changed their position...).

In other words, the wealth of documentation -- as sheer quantity -- is most likely greater now than at any time in literacy's history. More written information is being passed on a daily basis by more people from all walks of life than ever before. IM's about going to the gym or to the grocery store; emails about upcoming weekend activities and chain letter forwarding. Electronically at least we have documented our lives in ways our predecessors never have.

I won't pass judgement on whether the quality of this documentation has increased or decreased. The key question is whether we will be able to get to that information.

Let's leave aside for now the question of identity and verifiability. Will authors begin donating their email archives to universities? Will the ephemera of instant chat sessions, which can of course be captured and saved as text files, fall into the hands of future biographers?


JES said...

These are important -- and depressing -- questions.

My wife told me a story that she'd once read in Dear Abby, some advice column anyway. The question had come from a grieving widow, whose late husband's employer had made his email available to her. (Or maybe she'd just gone into his office and turned his PC on.) She'd had no idea at all about the affair he'd been carrying on, but it was all there in ugly pixels.

The stuff of nightmare.

Are you familiar with Nicholson Baker's Double Fold? It's focused on the preservation of archives, not personal correspondence, but there's a lot of overlap I would think. (Librarians tend not to be fans of the book, for understandable reasons.)

cuff said...

I am not familiar with Double Fold, but it sounds really interesting. Our growing electronic archives are great for distributing data and with digitized data (as opposed to microfilm etc) you don't worry about deterioration of the copy, but certainly something is lost when you can't get the old copies of the papers and journals and books and feel the heft, the way it would be consumed in its original form...