Biographies and the Archives of the Future

An interesting piece appeared in the Sunday Times this week about cyberwills. You can read the original article here (there’s a paywall) but, in brief, the piece discussed how different people are choosing to deal with their cyber legacy. One option is a cyberwill, a service run by Cirrus Legacy, that will release all your passwords on your death to a nominated executor. It is their job to delete, edit or archive your digital legacy as they see fit (or, perhaps, as you direct them).

Inevitably this has been picked up by journalists as a way to remove embarrassing Facebook photos but it also offers up an opportunity for literary archives. If you are a library collecting the letters of a dead author you rely on the author keeping their own archive (as Chandler tried to) or on the generosity (or greed) of the author’s correspondents who can be convinced to sell the letters to you. It is not foolproof of course. Letters and diaries are often destroyed or lost but, over time, it can lead to a sizeable and valuable archive.

But modern authors, with emails, tweets and Facebook and whatever else, create and archive a huge amount of material that is stored in the cloud each and every day. This creates a rich mine of material for future scholars to explore. However, access depends on the elusive password, something that may prove harder to trace than any letter. This is where a digital will can come in useful, creating a potential access point for researchers. If an organisation like the Authors Society or the British Library could offer a digital legacy service the detail of an author’s life could be preserved for decades beyond their death. Of course there would be some objection over privacy and there would be questions as to whether or not there would should be any judicious pruning of the content before it was accessed. But, if this could be surmounted, we would be left with a wonderful resource that would help us understand modern writers. It goes to show that digital developments can not just revolutionise the way biographies are read but the way they are researched and written too.

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About Tom

I was born in Newcastle but now live in London. I have written a biography of Raymond Chandler called A Mysterious Something In The Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler. It's published in the UK by Aurum Press and in the United States by Chicago Review Press. When not writing, I work as a literary agent at The Williams Agency.