Why the British Library archived 40,000 emails from poet Wendy Cope

Literary fans and academics have always been fascinated by the way author's private papers and correspondence inform and influence their creative output. But with far fewer letters flying between men and women of letters these days, digital files, especially email exchanges, are becoming more and more important.

At the end of last month, the British Library acquired the poet Wendy Cope's archive including its largest cache of an author's email to date: 40,000 emails written since 2004. spoke to two of the British Library team working on that project -- Modern Literary Manuscripts curator, Rachel Foss, and Jeremy Leighton John, e-Manuscripts curator, to discuss the benefits and difficulties of capturing an author's digital life and what researchers of the future will have to root through.

Foss explains that it's now the British Library's normal procedure to discuss an author's email correspondence when it buys their archive. She says: "When we acquire an archive from a living writer, they've usually reached a certain maturity. Wendy Cope has been using email regularly since 2004 so we're talking about a hybrid collection of paper items and digital files."

While Cope has been emailing for a relatively short part of her career, Foss expects future archives to feature a lot more digital material.

That move to storing more digitally archived content offers up lots of opportunities for libraries but plenty of challenges too. One of the biggest is educating writers about how best to preserve their email correspondence and other files related to their work.

Jeremy Leighton John says their approaches can vary wildly: "Some are hoarders, others are inclined to refine their archives a lot. The digital world has made everything more complicated. The obvious advice to authors is to make sure they make back ups but you've also got to think about digital preservation."

He explains: "Digital preservation is about things like being able to read file systems and physical media. It's a question of how to read particular files in the future. Future-proofing formats is a big challenge."

The British Library was a part of the Planets Project, a 15-strong group (which also included IBM, Microsoft and other major libraries), that considered issues surrounding digital preservation. That project has now flowered into the Open Planets Foundation, a not-for-profit company based in the UK, dedicated to providing practical solutions to libraries. 

Technology is helping to bridge the gap between today's computer systems and ageing formats. John has been experimenting with Kryoflux, a USB controller that can transfer data from hard drives, 5 1/4 inch floppy drives and other storage media to modern PCs and see lots of opportunities for restoring digital archives.

By taking a forensic approach to data recovery, John and his colleagues are able to capture an entire hard drive as a single file and recreate an author's computer as a virtual machine on a new system. The same approach has been used at Emory University Library in Atlanta to mimic Salman Rusdie's computer setup.

John says: "You can set up a virtual machine to take the original hard drive image and boot up as if it was the earlier machine. We use software that examines what was on the original disk and works out what the hardware was like to recreate."

"Doing that means you can browse an author's files and see how they relate to each other. And while interacting with them can result in changes, you can always restore the virtual machine to a fresh state."

While word processing documents don't produce a series of drafts in the traditional sense, many programmes, including Word, create compound files. By analysing the data in those files digital curators like John can dig up earlier drafts and show the creative development behind the final result.

Written by Mic Wright
Edited by Nate Lanxon
Photo Hsu


Reply to a comment

Submit »

Add a comment

Submit »


August Events

Click a day below to see forthcoming events in the Wired calendar, or submit your own.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31 1 2 3 4