English and Drama blog

01 April 2020

Digital Literary Collections — Variety, Complexity and Curiosity under Lockdown

by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts.

The April - June  2020 season of blogs on English and Drama will focus on the Library’s digital literary collections, ranging through Online Exhibitions, Learning Resources, the UK Web Archive, Personal Digital Archives and Emerging Formats.

Curators and cataloguers will post selections from our remotely available collections alongside their reflections every Friday, and an investigation of a different aspect of these digital collections every Wednesday.

The current situation is strange in countless ways. One way — relatively abstract and apparently unimportant at first glance — is how it has distorted our collective sense of physical space. By staying at home we simultaneously ground ourselves in a limited physical range whilst being drawn to new, expansionist forms of electronic communication. How many times have we heard, over the past few weeks — listening to friends and family over distorted, overburdened broadband connections — how relieved we all are that this particular crisis (if it had to happen) happened now; when we have unprecedented access to technologies which can, for those of us lucky enough to be able to access them, ameliorate the isolation or at least stave off the boredom. Perhaps it is inevitable that the ‘digital’, as a somewhat amorphous and poorly defined category, comes to the forefront of these conversations. Puritanical notions of screen-time as something to be avoided, or at least restricted, take a back-seat as the physical world grinds to a halt around us, and the fibre-optic synapses continue to fire, faster than ever.

 

Screenshot

The UK Web Archive (UKWA) attempts to collect this online activity, capturing millions of websites each year, preserving them for future generations. 

 

For curators, cataloguers and researchers who work at, use and visit cultural heritage institutions like the British Library, the physical collections remain out of reach. They’re in isolation too. In storage areas which are less like the ancient, labyrinthine temples of happenstance so often depicted in media representations — and much more like sterile hospital wards — countless boxes of archival material and shelves of printed material sit unprocessed and unread, gathering (minimal, tightly controlled, mostly metaphorical) dust. And we’ll miss them. But we’re relieved too. Because if this particular crisis had to happen, then at least it happened now, when our capacity to share our collections with our audiences remotely is growing more quickly than ever before.

 

Disco Lit Screenshot

 

Discovering Literature is an example of growing capacity to share and re-contextualise our literary collections online.  Enjoy digitised treasures from our collection, newly commissioned articles, short documentary films and teachers’ notes.

Every Wednesday a blog will go live from one of the Library’s curators or cataloguers, which will approach a different aspect of the ‘digital’ and how it relates to literature, drama and the Library.

Every Friday, a curator or cataloguer will highlight a digitised literary collection item or piece of writing from one of the Library’s many online portals, which in some way reflects upon our unprecedented situation.

None of this is to say that digital collections are easy; a fall-back option during a crisis. Archivists and other cultural heritage workers have long resisted the optimism (and hubris) of the tech-world and its zealots who claim that everything will be — or already has been — digitised. We know that the internet hasn’t superseded the Library or the Archive. We know that a future where all of our collections are available remotely, for free, online is a long, long way off. Most of us have spent too many years buried under piles of paper to confidently predict its obsolescence. We have spent too long agonising over the logistics, pragmatics and ethics of categorisation to take such systems for granted. We know that information delivery is never value-free or structure-free, and we take our roles as custodians of information seriously enough to question anything that argues otherwise. And, as the posts lined up for these coming months will prove, a significant number of Library colleagues have enough experience with these complex and various ‘digital objects’ to be all too aware that they are not post-archival in any meaningful sense, but rather present their own set of unique — and, at this point, often insurmountable — challenges for conservation, visibility and access.

Stock HDD Image

The Library's Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts Department now routinely collects born-digital archive material, including the hard-drives and e-mail of prominent writers. This material presents heretofore unprecedented opportunities and challenges for the Library in terms of preservation, visibility and access.

 

We hope that these reflections and selections will engage your curiosity and encourage both reflection and discussion in the coming months, as more of us settle into this new way of life.