Perhaps in your attic or basement there is a box of papers — letters, photographs, cards, maybe even journals — inherited from a grandparent or other relative who’s passed on. Authors, archivists and researchers have long considered these treasures. The right box might contain a wealth of information about a key historical period or place or person.
But what if that box isn’t a box at all? What if it’s an ancient laptop? And if we are starting to leave behind an increasingly digital inheritance, will it die as soon as the hard drive does?
Vectrexes To VCRs
Among those grappling with this challenge are archivists at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. The organization at the University of Maryland advises universities on how to handle archives and keeps a large collection of antiquated technology — from floppy disk drives to film reels and Vectrexes to VCRs.
The archivists of today need to stock those machines in order to read, copy and generally access all sorts of historical records. MITH Associate Director Trevor Muñoz says that means researchers often troll eBay for long-forgotten electronic equipment to make things work.
“[There is] this need to have both the software and the hardware, and that may even include the manual. So we need a disk drive that will read 5.25-inch floppy drives. And we need special cables that will connect the disk drive to a modern computer,” Muñoz tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. “So it’s a different challenge than we face for paper collections.”
And like paper, data bits decay (a phenomenon called “bit rot”) — software also dies out and hard drives get corrupted. Muñoz says we’ve passed the point where most collections will come in paper form, but there are some advantages.
“In the computer system, everything is time-stamped and tracked in very precise ways. So it really keeps a more complete and integrated picture of someone’s working life,” he says.
For example, if we had William Shakespeare’s hard drive, we could see what he was reading online while writing Macbeth.
“It’s kind of a silly example, but that kind of total picture of someone’s working life is much easier to recover,” he says. “We actually have a different view that would allow us to reconstruct a lot of someone’s creative life.”
That’s what Benjamin Moser is going through right now. He’s the authorized biographer for the late writer Susan Sontag. After she died in 2004, her estate sold her letters, computers and other materials to UCLA for a special collection.
“She had about 15 years of her life happening on the computer. So her stuff that she had — which were notes and manuscripts and letters and invitations and photographs — all start to migrate onto digital,” Moser says.
Moser says UCLA is in the process of preserving the computers and making them accessible to researchers in a read-only format. The wealth of information can be daunting — and a bit eerie.
“Going through these things requires even more tact. There is a real temptation to go in there and say, ‘Gosh, this was a really angry woman.’ It makes it very easy to reduce people,” Moser says.
Whether you think Sontag was a snob or the greatest writer ever, Moser says you can put your prejudices into the system and see them reflected instantly due to the sheer amount of things people say digitally.
“[But] people change, people have new experiences, people get sad, people fall in and out of love. People do all kinds of things,” he says. “And if you don’t have the broader picture, the sense that you’re dealing with a real human being who was very complicated and very complex in the exact same way that all of us are, you can distort that pretty easily.”
Too Much To Bother With
As for his own digital legacy? Moser says, “Please throw it all in the Pacific Ocean with a big block of concrete around it.
“I mean, it probably won’t help because I’m sure that Google has it in a cave in Idaho somewhere,” he says. “There’s this incredible amount of you that exists and that isn’t protected, that you don’t really have any say-so over.”
Where before you could just burn letters and diaries, you can’t exactly wipe every hard drive and scrape the cloud clean.
“I think the only thing on our side is that probably by the time, if I’m granted a normal life span and die in 40 years, there will be so much of if that nobody would possibly ever want to bother,” he says.
Sontag’s emails — all 17,198 of them — are now available at a dedicated laptop in the UCLA Library Special Collections reading room.