Sitting in the belly of a former whiskey store in the inner Melbourne suburb of Brunswick lies a vast and varied collection of artefacts that feminist scholars can’t wait to get their hands on.
Nearly 500 boxes in this dark, temperature-controlled warehouse hold a lifetime of handwritten letters, browning manuscripts and newspaper clippings.
But there are more modern treasures too: floppy disks containing an unpublished book about Margaret Thatcher; two computers, a Mac Powerbook G4 and iMac G5; and voicemail recordings about dinner plans in 1976.
These are the archives of Germaine Greer, the prolific Australian writer and icon of second-wave feminism, whose almost obsessive dedication to preserving her work spanned decades of changing technology — from typewritten letters to emails. She kept almost everything, including an unpublished 30,000-word love letter to novelist Martin Amis, discovered by academic Margaret Simons last year.
“Archives are the pay dirt of history,” Greer said at a Melbourne University event in 2013. “Everything else is opinion. At a certain point you actually need documents.”
It is now up to a small team of historians and librarians at the University of Melbourne Archives, the custodians of Greer’s gift, to sort through it all. But Greer’s collection is far more significant than a few hundred stacks of paper; it speaks to a greater challenge than sorting and cataloguing.
She began saving her records as a student in the 1950s, when almost everything was written by hand or typewriter. But by 2013, when she sold 150 filing cabinets worth of materials to the University, she had also amassed 600 items of digital media.
“It’s not just a paper archive,” says Rachel Buchanan, curator of the Greer collection. “She’s used everything. She’s used every possible kind of media.”
Greer’s archive includes floppy disks, tape cassettes and CD-roms, once cutting-edge technologies that are now obsolete. They are vulnerable to decay and disintegration, leftovers from the unrelenting tide of technological advancement. They will last mere decades, unlike the paper records alongside them, which could survive for hundreds of years.
Ms Buchanan and her team are just now working out how to access, catalogue and preserve the thousands of files on these disks, some of them last opened in the 1980s.
“We don’t really know what’s going to unfold,” Ms Buchanan says.
The Greer archivists are facing a challenge that extends far beyond the scope of their collection. Out of this process comes enormous questions about the fate of records that are “born digital”, meaning they didn’t start out in paper form. Record-keepers around the world are worried about information born of zeroes and ones — binary code, the building blocks of any digital file.
Like floppy discs of the past, information stored on USB sticks, on shared drives or in the cloud is so easily lost, changed or corrupted that we risk losing decades of knowledge if we do not figure out how to manage it properly.
Though the problem is universal and applies to everyone — from classic video game enthusiasts to people who keep photos on smartphones — it is particularly pressing for universities and other institutions responsible for the creation and preservation of knowledge.
Gavan McCarthy, the director of Melbourne University’s eScholarship Research Centre, says his office has become the de-facto resource for people at the university who need to recover and manage their born-digital data. He once helped a group of panicked scholars piece together the work of a 19th-century scientist whose letters they had spent 30 years recording into now out-dated versions of Microsoft Word.
He wants the university to invest serious resources in managing the information generated by students and researchers — both published and unpublished — so it’s available for future generations.
“We’ve got over 800 projects that we’re acting as this de-facto digital archive for, while trying to encourage the university to actually build genuine digital archiving capabilities,” he says.
Mr McCarthy says he and his team are trying to drum up support for a university-wide digital preservation strategy.
“To me it’s what a university is all about. It’s about learning new knowledge and holding it into the future.”
Mr McCarthy met recently with counterparts from around Victoria — the State Library of Victoria, Deakin University, the Australian National Data Service and other “memory institutions”, as he calls them — to trade digital archiving strategies.
Sarah Slade, the head of digital collection services at the State Library, was at the meeting. Though the library has been collecting digital items for years, it will soon upgrade to a formal preservation system that will maintain the material and run reports on information that might be at risk.
“From the library’s point of view, our role is to collect, preserve and make accessible the documentary heritage of Victoria,” she says. “That includes collecting everything in every format people produce.”
Ms Slade also serves as project manager for the digital preservation group of the National State Libraries of Australasia, composed of 10 libraries across Australia and New Zealand.
They have organised a series of online and local “Born Digital” events, to take place next week, as part of an effort to promote discussion around the collection of digital-only information.
She says it’s a conversation people who work outside of libraries need to have.
“I think that one of the issues is that because digital is so much a part of everybody’s life now, they almost take it for granted. They assume that it will be there forever and that you can access it whenever you want,” she says.
“All you need is one bad update on your smartphone and you’ve lost all your photos. If you have them in the cloud, then how much control do you have over them into the future?”
“Archives are the pay dirt of history. Everything else is opinion.” — writer Germaine Greer
According to Mr McCarthy, everyone is in the same boat — trying to figure out what to do with all of this digital stuff.
“The only industries that really do well in this space are probably the lawyers and the banks because they have to. The rest of us are in a mess,” he says.
Jaye Weatherburn, a digital preservation officer at Melbourne University, wants to help sort it out.
Ms Weatherburn joined the University’s eScholarship Research Centre in March and has started working on a long-term digital preservation strategy. She says funders, organisations who spend money on research, will soon start asking academics to make sure their data is “sustainable”, meaning that it will be easy to find even as technology changes.
“The fact that so much money goes into research and data collection and data production, funders want to see a return on that investment,” she says. “So other researchers coming along 10 years later can find it and reuse it and we’re not reinventing the wheel every time.”
Ms Weatherburn has been taking stock of the university’s record-keeping processes with the ultimate goal of having a service that keeps everything in one place — from an astronomer’s data on planetary movements to student records — in an open format that can be easily read by unknown, future technologies.
For now, Ms Weatherburn says, all that knowledge is living on hard drives or share drives within disparate sectors of the university. Who knows what will happen to it.
In October, she will meet with global colleagues at the 13th annual International Conference on Digital Preservation in Switzerland, where she hopes to learn from the preservation work of other institutions.
But many of her contemporaries have developed a general consensus regarding the management of digital information. They believe it should be preserved in open-source software that can take digital material, package it up with all the metadata that describes it and throw it into a digital archive.
Ms Weatherburn says it should be checked every few years to make sure that all the “zeroes and ones” haven’t degraded and can still be read by the technologies of the day. In Australia, however, few organisations have yet to invest in that kind of infrastructure.
Ms Buchanan says she and her team at the Archives have been figuring out the process as they go. But she thinks the management of Greer’s collection will highlight archiving gaps across academia.
“Just the amount of resources that were required to get text out of a disk that’s 25 years old. It’s not easy,” she says.
Peter Neish, the University’s Research Data Curator, is helping them do it. He looks at how researchers keep track of their data, store it and access it. He also manages a tiny suite of technology inside the University of Melbourne’s labyrinthine Thomas Cherry building in Carlton, where academics bring digital devices they can no longer read.
The room is spare but for old PC modems, tape cassette decks and neatly organised boxes of floppy disks, like a mini-museum of 20th Century tech.
Mr Neish has organised a system that transfers information safely from Germaine Greer’s removable media devices to a sustainable format.
This includes a collection of old device readers sourced from eBay. There is also the FRED, or “Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device”, a black block of hardware used commonly by police units. It can read everything from Blu-Rays to SD cards.
“I think that one of the issues is that because digital is so much a part of everybody’s life now, they almost take it for granted. They assume that it will be there forever and that you can access it whenever you want.” — Sarah Slade, head of digital collection services at Victoria’s State Library
To manage the files he uses Forensic Toolkit, software developed specifically for police investigations; it organises files into “cases” and “evidence”. He also shows off a brand new Kryoflux, a circuit board used to take digital images of floppy disks. It was developed by the Software Preservation Society, a group of self-described computer enthusiasts hoping to save their classic video games.
Archivists Lachlan Glanville and Millie Weber had never fully processed a born-digital collection until Greer’s. They have had help from Mr Neish and others — but much of their work has been a process of trial and error.
“There’s been a lot of Googling,” says Ms Weber.
Mr Glanville says one of the most exciting aspects of digital materials is the metadata within each file.
As an example, he pops one of Greer’s old floppy disks into a reader attached to his computer and opens it through BitCurator, a software similar to Forensic Toolkit. The disk, labeled “Journalism ‘93” opens in its original format, with each of its documents in the original file structure that Greer used to organise her work in 1993. You can see the exact day she last opened each file.
“The joy of it is that we’ve got all this metadata attached to this,” Mr Glanville says. “When she’s created this document, when she’s last accessed it — it’s stuff that’s not necessarily inherent in a paper version of that. There’s a richness to it.”
Ms Weber says digital preservation opens endless possibilities for historians interested in Greer’s life, with the metadata from her digital files leaving behind a kind of “intellectual road map” for researchers to use. “To navigate [her files] as Greer would have”, Ms Weber says.
Mr Neish, a former botanist who used to work with fossils, says he gets a similar thrill from recovering digital media.
“It’s a nice feeling to know that you’ve captured it,” he says. “It’s looking into the past and just seeing what’s there.”
Mr Neish says the Greer collection is the largest digital archive he has processed so far. Theirs is an ad hoc system, but it is working. Though he has his own recommendations for saving personal files.
“You should print them out.”
► An edited version of this story was also published in The Guardian.