The British Library is creating an archive to store the emails of the nation’s top authors and scientists, as the written word is replaced by electronic messages.
Emails from literary figures such as Ted Hughes, the late English Poet Laureate, will form a new digital archive alongside the library’s collection of paper correspondence, which includes love letters written by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas.
Curators have become concerned that conventional letters are becoming increasingly rare as writers and scientists abandon paper for more perishable email.
The library has appointed the world’s first digital manuscripts curator to collect important material that would otherwise end up as deleted items.
It has already acquired emails written by Hughes, and has created a list of important people whose computer files it would like to collect, including J.K. Rowling, A.S. Byatt, Alastair Campbell and Stephen Hawking. Jeremy John, who has set up the library’s first digital archive, is appealing to writers and scientists to ask them to store their correspondence in a way that will allow future generations to see their work.
“Emails are akin to telephone conversations,” he said. “We now have the opportunity to capture this information exchange, but I’m very concerned that we will lose it because the authors do not realise its significance.”
Even if writers and scientists do not delete important correspondence, storing files on a computer is risky because they could become corrupted over time.
Another problem is that the computer programs required to read the files become obsolete so quickly that even carefully collected data may become impossible to access.
John says the collection contains numerous files that he cannot read because he does not have the correct software, or even the necessary computers.