the future of archives

At the Chronicle of Higher Education I read this:

Leslie Morris is used to handling John Updike’s personal effects. For decades, Mr. Updike had been sending a steady stream of manuscripts and papers to Harvard University’s Houghton Library, where Ms. Morris serves as a curator.

But in late February, several weeks after the iconic writer died, some boxes arrived with unexpected contents: approximately 50 three-and-a-half and five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks — artifacts from late in the author’s career when he, like many of his peers, began using a word processor.

The floppies have presented a bit of a problem. While relatively modern to Mr. Updike — who rose to prominence back when publishers were still using Linotype machines — the disks are outmoded and damage-prone by today’s standards. Ms. Morris, who curates modern books and manuscripts, has carefully stored them alongside his papers in a temperature-controlled room in the library “until we have a procedure here at Harvard on how to handle these materials.”

Harvard isn’t the only university puzzling over new media from old — and not-so-old — masters. Emory University recently received four laptops, an external hard drive, and a Palm Treo personal digital assistant from Salman Rushdie. The University of Texas at Austin recently acquired a series of Zip disks and a laptop containing Norman Mailer’s files.

(Zip disks! — God help us. Mailer’s technological judgment was evidently a match for his literary.)

There’s something a little odd about this article, and that’s its temporal scheme: you’d think from reading this article that writers started using computers about three years ago. Five-and-a-quarter floppy disks from “late in the author’s career”? Those are probably about twenty years old, which places them roughly in the middle of Updike’s career.

But the article reads like that because libraries are just now starting to get archival materials from authors in the PC age. And they’d better not set those disks aside for too long: it’s hard enough these days to find a floppy drive that reads 3.5-inch disks, much less the old five-and-a-quarters.

What especially intrigues me is Salman Rushdie’s Palm Treo. Will such devices be the mainstays of future biographers? Will they spend untold hours scrolling through calendar applications to discover lunch dates and article deadlines? And what will happen if the next generations of writers buy into cloud computing and keep all their appointments in Google Calendar or 30boxes? And what if they end up using Google Docs to write their novels? I can imagine a future in which Sotheby’s and Christie’s get libraries participating in fierce bidding wars not for typescripts or notebooks or iPhones or laptops but for just this: a username and a password.

(Cross-posted at Text Patterns.)