FROM THE PULPIT
by scholarly concerns, it has run an exercise known as Digital Lives, which encouraged members of the public, including writers, to think ser iously about keeping not only their notes and photographs but a l so their entire dig i ta l output, including emails and Facebook entr ies. In many cases this meant
A l l Aboa r d t h e A r c h i v e
IF YOU ARE seeking a place in literary posterity and your own output is underwhelming, consider sending an email to Wendy Cope. She has just sold a lifetime’s papers, including drafts of poems, correspondence and school reports, to the British Library for a reported £32,000. Included in this mountain of material (commonly descr ibed as her archive) are 40,000 emails. What is more, Cope is committed to forwarding to the Library any additions to her output and correspondence, including further email exchanges (which is how your thoughts on Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis might yet feature in future versions of literary history).
It had been some time coming, but this is a recent and egregious example of computers’ encroachment into the world of literary archives. Gathering an author’s papers used to be a quirky, personal affair. Some writers liked, or at least managed, to keep drafts and letters; others regarded their wastepaper basket as their favoured long-term repository. When they were dead, their heirs rummaged through their surviving papers and, based on which relations they were still talking to, decided what was suitable for retention. They then called in an assessor from Maggs, and tried to sell the remaining bundles to an institution, preferably a well-endowed American university eager to acquire primary documentary material on which its PhD students could unleash their critical faculties.
teaching them to hang on to their computer hard drives.
Lately the British Library has been making great strides in storing, interpreting and making accessible this digital material. Amid talk of metadata and ‘fuzzy hashing’, a forensic process of comparing different versions of files, Jeremy Leighton John, the Library’s curator of e-manuscripts, is now able to save the contents of a hard drive (including details of all those various changes) directly onto a single file and use this to recreate a virtual version of an individual computer – something that Emory University has done with Salman Rushdie’s Macintosh Performa 5400. Students can work with this ‘born digital archive’ and gameplay what they themselves might have written at a particular moment in a manuscript’s gestation. Wendy Cope’s emails stand at a slightly earlier stage in the technical curve. But Rachel Foss, the British Library’s lead curator of modern literary manuscripts, enthuses that emails often come with a trail, allowing researchers to follow both sides of an exchange (something not always possible with Dickens and Thackeray). She also points to the potential significance of an Amazon receipt: how it enables a researcher to know what a writer was reading at a particular moment and to speculate on its influence on a particular piece of work.
Then living authors got in on the act. Recognising the demand for their papers and looking for an easy way to supplement their often meagre incomes, they started to take the Yankee dollar. For the financially canny and retentive, their archives now became their pensions. Cue various expressions of outrage that Britain was losing its literar y her itage. But American librar ies often took greater care of their flimsy paper acquisitions than their cash- and space-strapped British equivalents.
As a biographer my reaction is somewhat conflicted. Of course, I am delighted to get my hands on all kinds of interesting new material. But oh! the labour that will be required to sift through pieces of minutiae. One of the banes of biography has been the so-called laundry list style of writing lives. Is this now to be superseded by the Facebook approach?
In recent years this transatlantic demand has been drying up. American universities, including the acquisitive Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, are turning their attention to their own writers. And British institutions have undoubtedly upped their act. Witness the list of distinguished British writers (or their executors) who have in the last couple of years decided to settle their papers in their own country – among them Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett, John le Carré, J G Ballard, Melvyn Bragg, Geoffrey Hill and Mervyn Peake.
Archive acquisition has become less of a competitive sport. When the Bodleian Library recently wanted to purchase some important cor respondence between Franz Kafka and his sister Ottla, it helped defray the cost by doing t h i s i n par t ner s h i p with t he Deutsches Literaturarchiv (German Literary Archive) in Marbach. Now the British Library is threatening to change the game plan completely. For some time, pushed as much by general interest in genealogy and personal history as
It rather depends on the individual writer’s attitude to archive keeping. The hard disk never lies – or does it? I am sure that, in the spirit of Thomas Hardy’s largely self-written biography in an earlier age, even the careful hoarders of electronic material will find ways of editing and otherwise reworking their digital history to enhance their reputations.
There are always refuseniks such as Rudyard Kipling. Back in 1934, little more than a year before his death, he was visited at Bateman’s, his Sussex f astness, by his American publisher Frank N Doubleday, who found him in his garden, shovelling papers onto a fire. When asked what he was up to, the Nobel Laureate replied, ‘Well, Effendi [a Kiplingesque play on his publisher’s initials], I was looking over old papers and I got thinking – no one’s going to make a monkey out of me after I die.’ The funny thing is that this has not prevented the accumulation of an excellent Kipling archive at the University of Sussex where it sits happily alongside that earlier effort of mapping the nation’s consciousness, the papers of Mass Observation. ❑
LITERARY REVIEW July 2011