Performing Memory: Art Community, Archive & St Ives

NOTES: Digital Memory for the Future

with 2 comments

This is an interesting discussion from this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4. Following the announcement yesterday that poet Wendy Cope‘s personal archive, including 40, 000 emails, has been sold to the British Library for £32, 000.

Are emails ‘damned unromantic’? I love a letter, but surely the medium isn’t the message, and content is more useful to a researcher than its aesthetics?

John Sutherland, professor of literature at University College London, and Richard Ovenden, of the Bodleian Library, consider whether emails really denote a digital form of art, and what impact the email will have for future literary research.


Also, Radio 4’s Tales from the Digital Archive was brilliant, exploring these issues in more depth. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010m9sw

I’m fascinated by the use of emulators or original machines to access digital archives. Not only does this reproduce the idea of rummaging around looking for scraps of memory on paper, it reproduces, in a small way, the working environment of the author. Perhaps reading wordprocessed documents on a green and black screen appears to lack the romanticism of haptic engagement with actual paper, but in years to come I think this will hold as much fascination for researchers as an old diary. It’s tech-nostalgia. Just as an old typewritten document connects the reader to the typewriter, and to imaginings of a memory in a particular time, so will the sensuality of chunky click-clacking on the keys of a BBC Micro, or old Apple Macintosh. Paper and its ephemeral nature bestows a certain aura on the object, yet there is also a fragile ephemerality to these kinds of technology and their digital archives, and if they are not preserved then the loss is as great. In a century from now, researchers and archivists will encounter digital archives with as much of the excitement of discovery, and the magical quality of the object, that paper engenders today.

2 Responses

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  1. I know the BL is increasingly interested/exercised about the archiving of digital material, including websites. It raises a number of issues, not least in terms of the amount of material that is now generated electronically and the relatively easy ways of automatically archiving and retrieving material. But is the act of archiving only a human activity? Don’t choices have to be made about what to include and what to discard? What about the archiving of ephemera? The debates go on amongst archivists and the BL is at forefront of this. Might even be worth going to talk to them?


    May 4, 2011 at 7:27 am

  2. Thanks for your comments, Mike. Yes, I’m fascinated by these issues. Is twitter the post-it note of today? Digital ephemera and fragments of digital memory, what happens to them? Is twitter thinking of how they archive people’s tweets? After all, there are many noteworthy people using twitter, whose archives would be of great value. And, for that matter, who retains ownership of this? Facebook owns everything you put on it. I’d love to find out what @greatdismal (William Gibson) thinks of this. And yes, I’ll definitely be talking to the BL, and also the archivist at the Arnolfini, hopefully.


    May 5, 2011 at 2:08 pm

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