Perhaps in your attic or basement there is a box of papers — letters, photographs, cards, maybe even journals — inherited from a grandparent or other relative who's passed on. Authors, archivists and researchers have long considered these treasures. The right box might contain a wealth of information about a key historical period or place or person.
But what if that box isn't a box at all? What if it's an ancient laptop? And if we are starting to leave behind an increasingly digital inheritance, will it die as soon as the hard drive does?
Vectrexes To VCRs
Among those grappling with this challenge are archivists at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. The organization at the University of Maryland advises universities on how to handle archives and keeps a large collection of antiquated technology — from floppy disk drives to film reels and Vectrexes to VCRs.
The archivists of today need to stock those machines in order to read, copy and generally access all sorts of historical records. MITH Associate Director Trevor Muñoz says that means researchers often troll eBay for long-forgotten electronic equipment to make things work.
"[There is] this need to have both the software and the hardware, and that may even include the manual. So we need a disk drive that will read 5.25-inch floppy drives. And we need special cables that will connect the disk drive to a modern computer," Muñoz tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "So it's a different challenge than we face for paper collections."
And like paper, data bits decay (a phenomenon called "bit rot") — software also dies out and hard drives get corrupted. Muñoz says we've passed the point where most collections will come in paper form, but there are some advantages.
"In the computer system, everything is time-stamped and tracked in very precise ways. So it really keeps a more complete and integrated picture of someone's working life," he says.
For example, if we had William Shakespeare's hard drive, we could see what he was reading online while writing Macbeth.
"It's kind of a silly example, but that kind of total picture of someone's working life is much easier to recover," he says. "We actually have a different view that would allow us to reconstruct a lot of someone's creative life."
That's what Benjamin Moser is going through right now. He's the authorized biographer of the late writer Susan Sontag. After she died in 2004, her estate sold her letters, computers and other materials to UCLA for a special collection.
"She had about 15 years of her life happening on the computer. So her stuff that she had — which were notes and manuscripts and letters and invitations and photographs — all start to migrate onto digital," Moser says.
Moser says UCLA is in the process of preserving the computers and making them accessible to researchers in a read-only format. The wealth of information can be daunting — and a bit eerie.
"Going through these things requires even more tact. There is a real temptation to go in there and say, 'Gosh, this was a really angry woman.' It makes it very easy to reduce people," Moser says.
Whether you think Sontag was a snob or the greatest writer ever, Moser says you can put your prejudices into the system and see them reflected instantly due to the sheer amount of things people say digitally.
"[But] people change, people have new experiences, people get sad, people fall in and out of love. People do all kinds of things," he says. "And if you don't have the broader picture, the sense that you're dealing with a real human being who was very complicated and very complex in the exact same way that all of us are, you can distort that pretty easily."
Too Much To Bother With
As for his own digital legacy? Moser says, "Please throw it all in the Pacific Ocean with a big block of concrete around it.
"I mean, it probably won't help because I'm sure that Google has it in a cave in Idaho somewhere," he says. "There's this incredible amount of you that exists and that isn't protected, that you don't really have any say-so over."
Where before you could just burn letters and diaries, you can't exactly wipe every hard drive and scrape the cloud clean.
"I think the only thing on our side is that probably by the time, if I'm granted a normal life span and die in 40 years, there will be so much of it that nobody would possibly ever want to bother," he says.
Sontag's emails — all 17,198 of them — are now available at a dedicated laptop in the UCLA Library Special Collections reading room.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish and I'm here in my basement, called the Cornish Bureau. And I'm looking through my own archives. There are newspaper clippings, boxes and boxes of tapes, minidisks, cassette tapes. I got to say, I don't think I own a cassette player.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER)
CORNISH: You know, after a couple of years you just accumulate so much and some of it's paper, some of it's CDs. I've got this hybrid archive. And, you know, if you think I've got it bad you have no idea what archivists around the country are dealing with.
TREVOR MUNOZ: My name's Trevor Munoz. I'm an associate director here at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
CORNISH: The institute, based at University of Maryland, is known as MITH. I went there to find out how they advise universities on how to handle archives. It's a kind of place that would definitely have a cassette player for my old tapes.
MUNOZ: We have our old audiovisual equipment out here - so a variety of, like, projectors. Like, I remember these from my elementary school classes, that old tape recorder machine, film reels and everything.
CORNISH: There's a boom box.
CORNISH: Which I don't consider vintage but it is vintage.
CORNISH: And a VCR.
MUNOZ: And a VCR, right.
CORNISH: Researchers at MITH spend their days figuring out how to catalogue that tangle of tape, paper, cables, and dusty hard drives. That means trolling eBay for all the electronic equipment we've forgotten about.
MUNOZ: An old Apple 2 with a monitor atop two big floppy drives. This one is called a Vectrex. People, you know, love these machines. A Macintosh PowerBook G3; IBM MT/ST - so it's like this big gray big cabinet thing; so this is also popular one, one of our Mac Classics, it's familiar, squarish-gray Macintoshes which I remember from when I was a kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TONE)
CORNISH: These are the kinds of machines that the archivists of today need to stock in order to read, copy, and generally access all sorts of historical records. Like paper, Munoz says, data bits decay.
MUNOZ: We worry about things like what we call bit rot.
CORNISH: Software dies out.
MUNOZ: Software obsolescence is a big problem, right.
CORNISH: Hard drives get corrupted.
MUNOZ: What if we didn't have the Mac Classic 2 and that was the only piece of hardware that the program could run on?
CORNISH: All of this is critical to preserving these materials for historians, biographers, researchers. Munoz tells us that we've passed the point where most collections will come in as paper. Now, librarians must prepare for most collections to be digital.
MUNOZ: One that we pay a lot of attention to is this need to have both the software and the hardware. And that may even include, like, the manual. So we need a disk drive that will read five and a quarter inch floppy drives. And then we need special cables that will connect the disk drive to a modern computer. So it's a different challenge than we face for paper collections.
CORNISH: Does it feel as though this information is somehow more than getting boxes and boxes of letters?
MUNOZ: I think the level - so, like, in the computer system, right, everything is time-stamped and tracked in very precise ways. And so, it really keeps a more complete and integrated picture of someone's sort of working life. So things like being able to reconstruct what someone was doing on a computer, you know, what if we had Shakespeare's hard drive, we could tell a lot more about the kinds of things he was - like, what was he, you know, reading on the Internet while doing "Macbeth?"
So it's kind of a silly example but that kind of total picture of someone working life is much easier to recover. We actually have a different view that would actually allow us to reconstruct a lot of someone's sort of creative life.
CORNISH: You're reaching this generation of authors where they're going to have a mix of media. Do they themselves really have it organized in any smart way, right? Do they themselves appreciate that this is now part of their work - their body of work?
MUNOZ: Yeah, it varies. You know, I think the awareness is growing. Now that we've lived with computers for longer, authors, you know, are aware that their digital inheritance is as much part of their collection as paper.
CORNISH: Their digital inheritance, is that how I have to start thinking of my email?
MUNOZ: I don't know. It depends on how you feel about your email.
MUNOZ: I don't want my email to be my digital inheritance. But I mean, there's a lot we can learn from email, just like a box of letters. So those are, you know, really valuable things for researchers of the future to have.
CORNISH: So start scrubbing those emails.
MUNOZ: Or don't.
MUNOZ: Think of the future.
CORNISH: Think of your future biographer. Think of Benjamin Moser.
BENJAMIN MOSER: I was in a cubicle at UCLA and you sit down and, you know, just like any other computer. And you click it up and there it is.
CORNISH: Moser is the authorized biographer for the late writer Susan Sontag. Sontag's estate sold her letters, computers and other materials to UCLA for a special collection.
MOSER: Susan Sontag died in 2004, so she had about 15 years of her life happening on the computer. So her stuff that she had - which were notes and manuscripts and letters and invitations and photographs - all start to migrate onto digital. And at UCLA, where I've just been working for three months, they have been preserving those computers and trying to figure out how to make those accessible to researchers. And, in fact, I was the first person who got to get into those hard drives and into her email.
CORNISH: Now, there are more and more tools available to help researchers combed through this data, right? I mean, there are programs that analyze emails to find certain keywords. How is that useful to a biographer?
MOSER: Yeah, well, that's really hilarious and that's really weird because you can put these things into the system, and you can find pissed off at so-and-so, and you can click it in. And you can find, oh, October 3rd to at 12:23 on October 11th, she was mad at Suzy or she was upset with her son.
You know, and the thing that's strange about that, going through these things requires even more tact. There is a real temptation to go in there and say, gosh, this was a really angry woman. It makes it very easy to reduce people.
CORNISH: You mean you can kind of go in and cull the version of her that you want out of those digital materials?
MOSER: It takes under one second. So if you think Susan Sontag was a snob, or you think Susan Sontag was the greatest writer since William Shakespeare, you can put your prejudices into that and see them reflected instantly. Because what happens with people is that they say all sorts of things. And when you say things digitally - I mean, I just looked this morning, I have over 30,000 emails that are just on one account from the last 15 years of my life. And, you know, in 15 years, people change, people have new experiences, people get fat, people fall in and out of love, people do all kinds of things.
And if you don't have the broader picture, the sense that you're dealing with a real human being, you can distort that pretty easily. However, you can also distort that with letters, you can distort that with interviews. So the role of curating that material is still very, very important. And I'm a little worried that because it's now so easy that people will just figure out whatever they want to think about somebody. And you can find anything reflected in that amount of material.
CORNISH: How did this make you think about your own work as a writer, your own digital legacy, what you'll leave behind?
MOSER: Well, please throw it all in the Pacific Ocean with a big block of concrete around it. I mean, it probably won't help because I'm sure that Google has it in some cave in Idaho somewhere. But I think that my generation - I'm 37 - there's this incredible amount of you that exists and that isn't protected, that you don't really have any say-so over.
You know, you can burn letters. People traditionally did that. If somebody famous died and they would go through and they would take stuff that they thought was too painful or that was too personal or that was too trivial. And we don't really have that luxury. I think the only thing on our side is that probably by the time, if I am granted a normal life span, you know, and die in 40 years, there will be so much of it that nobody would possibly ever want to bother.
CORNISH: Benjamin Moser, authorized biographer for Susan Sontag.
Sontag's emails - all 17,198 of them - are now available at a dedicated laptop in the UCLA Library Special Collections reading room.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: If you're curious about how to preserve your digital legacy, we have two librarians on call today to answer your questions. Follow the conversation at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.