A glimpse at the future of the past

Last week Digital Preservation Officer Rachel MacGregor was invited to speak at a seminar organised by the University of Sussex looking at Digital Forensics and the Born Digital. Here she explains what it was all about and how it relates to the collections at the Modern Records Centre.

Selection of the more traditional documents here at the Modern Records Centre

I was delighted to be invited to speak at a seminar organised by Thorsten Ries of the University of Sussex to a study day devoted to the topic of digital forensics and digital archives. Digital forensics are most familiar to people from reports of law enforcement agencies who will examine the contents of a criminal’s computer in order to reveal hidden and deleted files which can be used as evidence in criminal investigations.  These same techniques can be used by archivists to have a deep dive into the contents of hard drives, floppy disks or whatever format the archive collections have arrived at the archives.  The Modern Records Centre has archives deposited on floppy disk, CD, USB drive and hard drive so there is plenty of scope for this kind of work although it can be labour intensive and complicated.  However in some cases – especially when dealing with the archives of writers – there can be much valuable “hidden” information contained within the media.  In other cases there may be material which the donor did not intend to give to the archives, so a great deal of sensitivity is also required.

Tackling older media types can be challenging

The seminar was a great opportunity for me to share the work I have just started doing on the small part of the papers (if that’s the right word) of Eric Hobsbawm which are digital.  In total the collection contains fifteen 3.5 inch floppy disks dating from around 1997 which have not been examined since they were deposited in 2013.  For me it was a chance to use some new software, especially designed for the task, on a standalone workstation. It’s possible to find out things like exactly what time of day the file was created at (or at least the time the computer thought it was…) and what kind of software was used and so on.  For some scholars this kind of information is really crcuial.  Other people are more interested in the information which is contained within the files.  I also wanted to know how important the “look and feel” of the files was – does it matter if the files “look” like they would have done when they were created in 1997? Would we want to recreate the environment of the same home computer they were written on (although we don’t know what this was)? There are lots of possible approaches and it was good to be able to share them with people who have a wide range of interests in reading and analyzing text.

It was a great showcase for a lot of other interesting work that is going by archivists and researchers. We heard a great presentation from Professor Jane Winters of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London talking about the complexities of web archives which you can read more about in this recent interview.  The team from the British Library were also presenting on the email archives of Wendy Cope and how they were making them accessible – still something of a challenge eight years after they were received.  Fiona Courage from the Mass Observation Archive talked about the transition from the paper submissions to the collection through to the digital ones and how the perceptions of researchers using the collection changed once they were no longer dealing with the handwriting of individual diarists.

Some documents can become very difficult to access


Possibly the most intriguing presentation was from Kees Teszelszky from the National Library of the Netherlands sharing his detective work on the very first Dutch Online Literary Magazine called de Opkamer (“the upstairs room”) who tracked down the creator of this online magazine which can be glimpsed via the Internet Archive.  Teszelszky wanted to know what had happened to the content which you could buy via the online shop … and found he needed to talk to the website owner access it.

It was great to see the sort of work which is going on around the world on “older” digital files – still within my working life but now often being consigned to harder-to-access hard drives and floppy disks or even – as with Jenny Mitcham’s case study of the Marks and Gran (writers of Goodnight Sweetheart, Birds of a Feather and many other TV hits) Archive at the University of York, which she has previously written about here, in software that is not so easy to access.  It was a reminder that our cultural heritage and history is fragile and relies on work like that which we are doing here at the Modern Records Centre to preserve our more recent past.

So far I have only examined one disk from the Hobsbawm Collection and have found letter, notes, a fax and an interview. Hopefully further work will bring to light new and interesting material which could add to our understanding of Hobsbawm’s life and work and allow researchers to think about the way in which writers in the late twentieth century moved from handwriting to typewriters so computers.  It’s a little glimpse of the future of the past.

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