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21st century literary archives examined

I doubt anyone expects, or wants, a graduate student to one day pore over his or her Gchat conversations. Because these new forums are overloaded with information, future archivists may face the more difficult challenge of distinguishing between valuable and throwaway writing.

The intrusion of the Internet into archiving technology is a very interesting and novel issue. Previously, archivists collected personal correspondence and diaries. Paper, while degradable, already has maintenance techniques. However, the recent onslaught of technology has given people various online resources through which to express themselves, like Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, and various other blogs.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education illustrated the problems involved in archiving contemporary characters. As part of his legacy, John Updike left behind floppy disks at Harvard’s Houghton Library, leaving his archivist befuddled. While the library is equipped to handle the most delicate of manuscripts, it does not have the materials necessary to process vestiges from Linotype machines.

In his letters to Atticus, Cicero often wrote about mundane worries regarding interior decorating or gossip, but he did not mean for these letters to encounter public scrutiny. Then again, it is comforting to realize that Cicero too had human worries and was a little vain about his not-so-humble abode. But when future archivists catalogue today’s characters, where will they turn?

I doubt anyone expects, or wants, a graduate student to one day pore over his or her Gchat conversations. While library science is heavily concerned with the technological modifications needed to handle new forums of self-expression, I wonder if all the effort is worthwhile. Because these new forums are overloaded with information, future archivists may face the more difficult challenge of distinguishing between valuable and throwaway writing. But can such a distinction ever be made?

Recently, the personal writings of many authors have been published, including a volume of Samuel Beckett’s personal letters and Susan Sontag’s teenage diaries. One could easily argue that scholars and readers alike should have access to such intimate records, in order to garner a fuller picture of these famous writers. As Demetrius tells us, “It may be said that everyone reveals his own soul in his letters.” But a letter is worlds away from a Twitter status update. Crafting a letter demands thought, while an e-mail is jotted off in seconds.

Many of the panelists at the conference struggled with the issue of privacy. Not only does it take two to tango, but correspondence also assumes a sender and a recipient—and the sender may very well be betrayed by the recipient if the latter offers up the letters for public perusal.

Meanwhile, Internet privacy creates another realm of danger. While one could argue that e-mails and Twitter updates are meant for an audience, would unsent e-mails also qualify? In my inbox, I currently have 238 drafts, at least eight of which are melodramatic rants. Thankfully, reason intercepted their deliveries, and I hope they never see the light of day. Yet they remain in the drafts folder, because my follies serve as both personal amusement and as cautionary tales.

The article in the Chronicle of Higher Education mentions the vast opportunities available on the Internet, including the abilities to track browser history and to review drafts of digital files. Technology is great for understanding the creative process, but when did archivists become Big Brother? After all, I clean out my browser history bimonthly for a reason. Had Beckett written during the Internet era, would knowing which porn sites he frequented really contribute to our understanding of his character?

If the unlikely opportunity ever arises that some university wants an archive of all my past writings, I would prefer my LiveJournal entries from middle school to be excluded. But feel free to go wild with my Xanga!

Lucy Tang is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. Sentimental Education runs alternate Mondays.

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