Recording for future generations
Why literary archives matter
In many ways, the archive shapes what is seen to constitute Caribbean literature, authorship and literary history. In a context where the colonial past forced exclusions and erasures, the need to think critically and creatively about the archive is especially significant. Identifying and preserving existing archives, mapping losses as well as finds, encouraging new acquisitions and bringing all possible sources into visibility will help create a more democratic and pluralising version of the literary past and thereby of the Caribbean’s cultural, national and regional heritage.
As researchers on this project, we have not only been reading and writing about literary archives but we have also been keen to raise awareness around the value of authors’ papers among living writers – who, after all, are the future of the region’s literary past. Any authors who are currently building their archive can access advice. Marta Fernández Campa has worked closely with the writers Karen Lord, Sharon Millar, and NourbeSe Philip to explore their ideas and approaches to record-keeping and you can learn more about this LINK It is still relevant to note that far less has been archived in relation to women writers from the region more generally.
In the Anglophone region, it was Prof Kenneth Ramchand’s successful request for funds to found a collection of authors’ manuscripts at UWI in 1968 that laid the foundations for what is now the West Indiana Collection at the UWI Library at St Augustine, Trinidad. This remains a flagship literary collection and actively acquires the papers of living writers. UWI and especially Lorraine Nero, Senior Librarian, have been a key partner in this project. In the digital age, both literary creation and reception takes place in an online environment and this also has a profound impact on what we understand by an author’s archive. While it would be mistaken to assume that electronic material is more readily retrievable, more open and accessible, and easier to preserve than paper, the Digital Library of the Caribbean, launched in 2004, has transformed access to rare and hard to reach primary materials across the Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanaphone, and Dutch Caribbean. dLOC’s digital archiving helps overcome information biases against small islands and the organization has also modelled strong ethical principles in terms of cooperative working. dLOC, especially Laurie Taylor and Perry Collins, have been active partners on our digital outputs and have offered us a permanent home for our research.
Thinking through archives
Caribbean award-winning authors Karen Lord, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Sharon Millar are the three writers who have participated in case studies as part of my research into their recordkeeping interests and practices. The insights that Lord, Philip, and Millar shared about their own writing processes, influences, and practices of selecting and keeping materials for their archives has shaped and nourished this research in multiple ways. I had meetings with them in person, sometimes in the UK and other times during research trips to the Caribbean and North America. We also met online. This was especially the case during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those occasions was also the first time that we all gathered (although virtually) and continued the conversation together as part of the commission entitled Thinking Through the Archives. The video below is a film that documents that moment, and it also captures the ways in which discussing issues of recordkeeping, legacy and memory have influenced this research and the authors too.
One of the purposes of the research was to consider new ways in which literary papers today (both with authors or in a library/archive) might be changing and differ from those of writers from previous generations whose archives were largely paper-based and proportionately less influenced by the impact of technology. Digital media and technology continues to shape the papers of authors in the current moment in ways that will alter their form and access in the future. I carried out research in collections in the Caribbean, Canada and the UK with a focus on researching their materiality. What types of materials had been kept and included? What was their format? What were the differences between the types of materials that were physical and those that were digital? Research in collections at the libraries of two campuses of the University of the West Indies in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago offered a good sense of the range of records kept by various authors including George Lamming, Earl Lovelace, Derek Walcott, Lawrence Scott, and Lorna Goodison. This research offered insights into their habits, interest in safeguarding their work, and authors’ awareness of its cultural value. For example, Derek Walcott, whose papers are part of what is known as a split collection (one divided across various archives), was deeply invested in keeping a comprehensive record of both his literary and fine arts production. His collection both at the Alma Jordan Library in Trinidad and at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Canada, contains a comprehensive number of materials around events and awards (invitations, photographs, honorarium and financial details, plane tickets and itineraries among others). This reveals a keen interest and acknowledgement of its future personal and collective value for a wider community.
My interviews with Lord, Philip, and Millar reinforced this sense of the active engagement of contemporary authors today in the process of keeping a record of their papers and preserving their work. I was interested in exploring a series of issues, especially in connection to the impact of digital media and technology in this process. My questions also shifted and adapted to the conversation as I engaged in conversation with them. It was important to be flexible and open to new paths through listening to them. This conversation that we all had about recordkeeping, archiving and creative processes took place on 26 May 2021. In my approach to the interview here, as in my individual recorded interviews with them, I attempt to facilitate and share a space of dialogue without too much steering into specific directions. Karen, NourbeSe, and Sharon spoke about their interest and thinking around keeping records for their papers, building and maintaining a library (together with all the decisions involved), the key role of conversations among writers in the process of archiving and in building networks and support, the perils and usefulness of social media for the writing process, and many more other issues.
In an article published in a special issue on archives that I guest-edited with Evelyn O’Callaghan for the Journal of West Indian Literature, I wrote about the research into recordkeeping and these three case studies. I have also published interviews with the authors.
—Dr. Marta Fernández Campa
Advice to authors building an archive
Advice and information on records management and preservation of papers
The following advice is for authors at all stages of their careers and aims to offer helpful tips on what to keep and how to keep it, as well as links to key information in this area.
Independently of whether writers are interested in or decide on depositing their papers (literary archive) in a library or archive, it is important and helpful to follow guidelines in order to avoid unwanted loss or damage of materials.
There is a strong tradition of literary archives across the Caribbean with landmark collections including those of C.L.R. James, Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace, Louise Bennett, Vic Reid, and many others. Some of these are known as split collections, when the papers of a writer are divided across two or more institutions and locations. Examples of split collections are C.L.R. James’s papers, held at repositories in Trinidad and the United States, and Derek Walcott’s, which is held at archives in Trinidad, St Lucia, Jamaica and Canada. Many collections of Caribbean writers’ papers can also be found at libraries and archives in diasporic locations in Canada, France, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
CARBICA, the Caribbean regional branch of the International Council on Archives, offers a series of resources, including links to several repositories in the region. Equally, MIGAN is a web platform that hosts a directory of archival institutions in the Caribbean and a number of resources and information on archives and archival matters.
The possibilities and challenges that digital media and technology pose today, also mean that guidance and good practice is necessary to make the most of those possibilities and be ready to face the challenges. These guidelines are divided into a section on physical records (paper-based records) and another one on born-digital records (digital format), since the various existing mediums and format have different safeguarding needs. Literary archives pre-digital era, likely contain only physical records but most contemporary archives today contain a variety of physical and born-digital ones.
Records in physical format, mostly paper based, including:
- Letters, postcards, telegram
- Diaries, journals, notebooks and sketchbooks
- Print manuscripts (various drafts, proofs, final manuscripts)
- Articles and other print publications
- Books, authors’ library
- Posters, fliers and publicity material (including photos)
- Objects (typewriter; computer; writing desks, pens and more)
ADVICE ON RECORDKEEPING AND SAFEGUARDING
- Consider keeping early drafts of work, as well as revisions and final drafts (multiple drafts show changes in a work and illustrate the creative process).
- Set up a separate email account for your correspondence as a writer so that it is not entangled with private exchanges that could make public access problematic.
- Save incoming as well as outgoing mail in correspondence as much as possible, be it through copies of physical letters (or archiving of email). Keep a record of the correspondence related to your writing and literary activities, and your life as an author, including correspondence with your editors.
- Preserve physical copies of posters and fliers (readings/events at literary festivals/keynote speeches/seminars/workshops, etc).
- Keep all physical notebooks or other platforms for recording your creative process, such as artist sketchbooks
- Retain research materials (books, printed articles and book chapters, any research notes, any bibliographies [including books accessed online], especially annotated ones).
- Consider keeping physical objects that are important to your work (for example, a typewriter or computer).
- If music or art is central to your writing, you could consider keeping those records / physical tickets from concerts and other ephemera as well as prints or paintings that were significant to you, particularly if they have influenced your writing or work process.
In addition to the great literary, cultural and historical value of the contents of a writer’s archive, these materials also offer a sense of the creative process and development of literary works.
Safeguard materials by:
- Filing documents in acid free folders, whenever possible, as it best preserves paper.
- Storing documents and libraries in dry and clean spaces, avoiding humidity and spaces such as garden sheds, garages or lofts. Metal cabinets are recommended for storing materials. For the storage of photographs, use polyester sleeves.
- Creating a sustainable plan to preserve documents in case of eventuality involves digitisation and safe storage of key files (including regular fixity checks)/making photocopies of those and sharing them (in either format) with trusted individuals.
Some of the recommendations above have been sourced from a guidance sheet for authors and writers on what to keep, how to best preserve documents and information on the process of transferring papers to an archive. This guideline was compiled by representatives of Diasporic Literary Archives Network (DLAN); Group for Literary Archives and Manuscripts (GLAM); Society of Authors (SoA); The National Archives (TNA).
“Records that have been natively created in digital format (rather than digitised from paper records)”—The National Archives (UK)
Most common born-digital records in writers’ archives (both in their hands or at a library/archive are:
- Audio-video recordings
- Audio recordings (podcasts; audiobooks; interviews, etc)
- Digital Art
- Digital materials around books & publicity (fliers of events; event e-tickets; press releases; etc)
- Finance records
- Manuscripts (drafts, revisions, final versions)
- Photos (author and event related photos, from research)
- Research materials (articles)
- Social media accounts
- Website bookmarks, browsing history and collection of downloads may also be considered by archives
Digitized materials are also important digital records to preserve. These include: digitized manuscripts, or digitized reviews and other print documents pre-Internet era (particularly when they are not available in digital format).
The Digital Preservation Coalition also notes:
“Digital materials which are not intended to have an analogue equivalent, either as the originating source or as a result of conversion to analogue form. This term has been used in the Handbook to differentiate them from 1) digital materials which have been created as a result of converting analogue originals; and 2) digital materials, which may have originated from a digital source but have been printed to paper, e.g. some electronic records.”
Safeguard digital materials by:
- Archiving emails (here are guidelines on email archiving. Most accounts offer in-built archiving options, but it is recommended to also archive emails externally in a computer, hard drive and cloud storage).
- Doing regular fixity checks and checksum on digital files to ensure data integrity.
- Making more than one copy of your digital file /record (possibly at a different location) and use different format for other copies, as well as possibly using cloud storage for third copies.
- Printing copies of selected documents (on addition to having an extra / two extra digital copies).
- Version control: establish consistency on naming files so that files can be read and retrieved easily – a standard recommended naming system. From DPC: “Though not necessary, it can be useful to create file names that begin with the date in the ISO format. For example, meeting minutes might have a file name pattern: ‘20170314_minutes_monthlystaff.doc’ so that they appear in a file directory in chronological order.”
Risk to the loss of born-digital material
The shelf life of born-digital materials is likely to be less than that of paper-based materials such as books and stored documents if there isn’t a contingency plan. Physical records can be subject to loss due to fires or natural disasters, but born-digital materials stored by the author can get damaged and broken links on the internet (for example) can lead to lack of access if other copies are not preserved.
Some issues to consider:
- Fast change of digital format, technology or platform leading to obsolesce of mediums (i.e: floppy disks or CD-ROMs).
- Loss of materials due to technical failure if no back-ups have been put in place.
- Changing name of a file many times or inconsistently – “Changing a file extension can create errors that can result in the file becoming unreadable and essentially lost.” https://www.dpconline.org/docs/knowledge-base/1865-dp-note-4-file-naming-and-formats/file.
- Security breach in a cyber-attack or platform failure for cloud storage (if files are only stored there)
Preservation and safeguarding of born-digital records: Good practice and guidelines
Brown University, https://library.brown.edu/collections/archives/recmgt_guide_elecrec.php
International Council on Archives, https://www.ica.org/en/digital-recordkeeping-programme-resources