Becoming Digital

This week and next are pretty significant for the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway. On August 29 the Department and its three research centres move from their current location on the first floor of the Arts Building to a suite of offices in the College's Founders Building (the fancy big red one in all of the photos).

This is good news for all kinds of reasons. We are expanding, and there are simply not enough rooms in our current location to cope. Our new accommodation provides us with a bit more room for PhD students, a good sized administrative hub, and an academic common room. We also get to hang out in what is arguably the finest university building in the whole of the United Kingdom (Oxford and Cambridge have fine buildings, but none to match the sheer scale and majesty of Founders, though I admit it is not to everybody's taste).

Over the last couple of weeks, staff have been busy packing boxes and attaching sticky labels to things in anticipation of the big day. Many of us have taken the opportunity to chuck out some of the detritus that inevitably gathers over time. Academics are notorious hoarders. "When in doubt, keep it" is our motto, often in the vague hope that some old History and English Literature A-level revision notes (guilty) or a pile of prospectuses from 2001 (guilty again) might one day come in useful. I even found a form letter from 1989 (when I was 18), from none other than Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour Party, welcoming me as a member. For some unknown reason it was nestling within those A-level revision notes.

As I wandered up and down the corridor last week, I witnessed quite a few rueful smiles as colleagues landed upon dog-eared postcards, yellowing newspaper clippings, long-forgotten publishers' rejections, proudly retained student thank-you letters, obscure journal article offprints, and miscellaneous electronic artifacts, such as a Sony digital camera from the mid-1990s that actually stored images on 3.5" floppy disks. One colleague bitterly described how he had taken the momentous decision to give away - to a library in Zimbabwe - thousands of pounds' worth of legal documents dating back forty years, such was his desire to purge.

The laxative effect of the Department's move has sparked several discussions of scholarly practices in these digital times. What, and where, is the "archive", even in a personal sense, these days? I have about 3000 PDF documents on my hard disk, mostly journal articles and conference papers that I've gathered over the last five years. All of my published work, apart from a few book reviews, is stored in various file formats on the same disk. These are instantly searchable, indexed by Copernic, my desktop search engine. Sometimes I have to ferret around in directories and subdirectories to find something, but this usually doesn't take too long. The convenience is amazing. Contrast this with the eight box files of photocopies, scraps of notes, none of them searchable, that provided the raw materials for my PhD thesis, published as my first book.

But while we gain convenience we lose permanence. The dusty piles of documents, the bottom drawers of filing cabinets, even those individually-labelled floppy disks, have a fixity about them. Adobe's PDF is a standard and has been around an eon in "internet time", but will it be the same in a decade? Will I be able to read the files? Will I have lost the lot in a catastrophic hard disk crash? Don't even mention Microsoft Word, a programme that has been through several well-meaning, though irritating, file format changes in only the last few years (".docx", anyone?).

In thirty years' time, will somebody going through the office of a scholar who started out in the late 1990s be able to construct a reasonable narrative of their life's work? I doubt it. And even if they could, it would not look at all like it would have done in the pre-digital era. In days gone by, retiring professors would often deposit their "papers" with their university library, the idea being that their judgment over what to hoard had some intrinsic value worth passing on to future generations. What would "papers" even mean these days?

Librarians have pondered the problem of the digital era archive for more than a decade, but my sense is that we are still massively underprepared for what lies ahead.

Those A level revision notes and PhD box files went to the recycling plant last Thursday. They are gone forever. It felt good. And the 19 year old letter from Neil Kinnock? Sitting safely in a folder waiting to be transported to room FW114, of course.