Friday, 22 April 2011

Serious Concerns

You may have heard that the British Library has just bought the papers of poet Wendy Cope, and that this collection is notable for being the Library's biggest digital accession in a literary archive to date as it includes thousands of Cope's emails.

This story made the culture slot in Thursday's Today programme on Radio 4, aired right in the middle of my breakfast-eating time. John Humphreys interviewed John Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of Eng Lit at University College London, and Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian and chair of the Digital Preservation Coalition. You can listen to the whole piece until next Thursday (28 April) here.

I've chosen to blog about it because of the infuriating way the story was presented.

Humphreys was trying quite hard to make the general tone of the piece 'Emails? In an archive?! What is the world coming to?!!', and it's to Ovenden's huge credit that he managed to present a nuanced, forward-looking and optimistic case despite this attitude.

It was really interesting to see the way in which opinions about what is reasonable behaviour differ when considering a digital, not physical, archive.  It's not news that in debates of this kind the physical object attracts an almost fetishistic level of interest.  In this piece that was the case - Humphreys and Sutherland discussed a letter of Keats that sold for thousands, and the way that the manuscripts of George Orwell are poured over to see the exact minutiae of his writing processes.  They decried the inability to extract similar information from digital material, but then when Ovenden suggests that this level of 'forensic' investigation is possible in the digital world too, the tide suddenly turned and this was viewed as intrusive and creepy.  Humphreys even suggested it is reminiscent of the Stasi.  (For more thoughts about what level of investigation into personal papers is and isn't expected and/or acceptable today and historically, read this interesting post on the Darwin and Gender blog.)

The topic of the interview then drifted on towards the difficulties brought by the high volume of digital material available. I've transcribed the closing section, which I think gives a decent impression of the uphill battle faced by Ovenden.

Ovenden: There are very useful techniques like text mining and data mining which enable you to use algorithmic analysis [incredulous laughter from Humphreys] on huge bodies of information.  These are the tools of the scholar of the future.  But also there are very traditional techniques that archivists have used called appraisal: we've been weeding collections of unwanted information for centuries to keep archives in manageable form and I think that we need archivists and librarians more than we ever have had because of this issue of digital abundance as it's been called.

Humphreys: We'll have to end it there because John Sutherland wants to rush off and learn his algorithms.

Digital preservation and access is a hugely difficult issue for archivists and special collections librarians, so I was really pleased to hear any even slightly productive discussion of it in the media. When people learn I'm a librarian who's worked with archival collections they very often start a pessimistic spiel about how 'we'll have nothing left' in the future because we do so much electronically today, which inevitably also reveals this unhelpful attachment to physical objects as relics of people and ideas. If this pessimistic attitude prevails then we we certainly won't have anything left, because no-one will have dared to deal with it. Fortunately, some people are daring to try and sort it out, so hurrah for the BL promoting that side of this acquisition.

The casual listener to Today will probably only have picked up the anti-digital main thrust of the piece, and not Ovenden's more considered, not to mention expert, view. Still, at least some people will have been listening more closely and will have heard the detail of what he said.

It's a shame that this interesting, and not actually entirely intellectually baffling, issue couldn't be addressed with some seriousness on what purports to be a serious news programme on a serious speech radio station.  The Today programme's editorial (or maybe just Humphrey's personal) stance on topics like this is enough to make me scream. 

Serious Concerns is the title of a collection of Cope's poems first published by Faber and Faber in 1992. You should read it.


  1. I heard this on the radio but I am not a morning person, so went back to it later on iplayer. As a current student on a digital curation module, i was absolutely fuming, and i'm glad you've expressed my rage in a very eloquent blogpost.

    I did see a comment on twitter along the lines of "Humphreys cannot be trusted to do any sci/tech items without giggling." I've definitely noticed this before, so I think it is partly just him not really understanding this stuff and dealing with it by taking the piss/adopting a credulous tone.

    I think though there is a wider problem in trying to explain these very serious and important ideas when the other people in the debate aren't really interested in taking it seriously. I think Richard Ovenden did really well, but I really felt sorry for him too.

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Yes, that comment about Humphreys and sci/tech is spot on. This item really got my goat because it wasn't just any tech issue, it was a libraries/archives issue, and therefore closer to my heart! And I didn't really see it as a tech piece, but a culture piece (it was in the culture slot, after all (what it says about my radio-listening habits that I know when all the different slots are in the Today programme I leave to the reader to consider)), which usually are usually treated with a bit more respect.

    I'm starting to wonder though, if it isn't quite as bad as we first felt. Humphreys' obvious 'difficulty' with anything modern is, after all, quite well-known and obvious from the way he speaks, so maybe other listeners will have disregarded his comments and 'sided' with Ovenden, too? It's horrible that every things has to come down to taken sides, though.

  3. well done katie - great, reflective, considered piece of writing.

  4. It was disappointing to hear John Sutherland get mired in old-buffer-ness along with Humphreys from whom I expect it. Obviously Sutherland is one of those experts the BBC has on speed dial to get their two penn'orth on anything vaguely in their area.
    Your piece was excellent, well-written and well-observed. Nice one.