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What will post-digital archives look like?

September 7, 2022 Leave a comment

In the picture below are about 150 pre-digital-era workbooks, files, diary entries and sheaves of letters (remember, cc is for carbon copy). They were left behind by a 20th century author and classicist: my late father Maurice W.M. Pope, who died in 2019. Surprisingly, it took me just a couple of days to sort out ahead of its journey to be archived by kind request of Cambridge University’s Department of Classics.

My trip back as far as a 1940s air raid on his school made me wonder: how will the intellectual journey of an individual be reconstructed in the 21st century? Will it matter about all our emails on lost accounts, digital files in unreadable formats, vanishing social media posts and hard disks that were left on the train?

My father had one last unpublished book that we had all thought was lost like this, a file on his computer that disintegrated after few chapters into digital gobbledygook. Then my mother found the annotated typescript on one of his library shelves. We’ve now nearly finished editing it as The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power and expect to share some good publication news soon!

Maybe archivists’ work will one day all be done by a know-it-all algorithm in the cloud. But after the last week of looking at sixty years of thinking, research ideas, versifying, essay composition, editing and drawing, somehow I don’t think it will feel the same.

Some of my late father’s 1,500 or so books on the ancient world.