The British Library, the famed repository of everything from Gutenberg Bibles to culturally significant napkin scribbles by the likes of Lennon and McCartney, has added e-mails and electronic data to the list of documents it archives.
Jeremy John, the library's curator of digital manuscripts, said the institution will be adding to its digital archive substantially in the future and called the move a "natural progression" from manuscripts. He also said the library is not just looking for the big names.
"We're looking for the work of influential people, not always well-known people," John said. "We need to learn to respect ancestral floppy disks as we do fragile historical paper manuscripts." The library now holds, for example, a body of work from pioneering evolutionary biologist Bill Hamilton.
The digital archive will initially be made available via a standalone computer in one of the library's reading rooms, but John said he hoped the public would eventually be able to examine the documents over a network.
And, as it would for physical documents, the library has procedures to verify the authenticity of its digital archive, as well as measures to prevent the documents from becoming corrupted.
Multiple copies of the files are made in various formats, with the library even going so far as to use different batches of CDs to prevent corruption. The British Library also makes use of file-compression techniques, unique identifiers and "rigorous audit trails" designed to record what happens to digital files over the decades.
Though John doesn't foresee an entirely digital future, with printed versions of authors' and scientists' work dying out, he does see a move to more electronic archiving, adding that he expects the British Library to catalogue IM conversations in the not-too-distant future.
John said the public can help. He'd like people to contact him if they "have or are aware of available computer hardware, including disk drives and tape readers, software or manuals from the 1960s to the 1980s and possibly early 1990s."
He's particularly interested in "scientific programs, software, manuals and specialized hardware," and would like to hear from "scientists who have some experience with these kinds of materials as well as (from) classic- and vintage-computer enthusiasts."
Jo Best of Silicon.com reported from London.