The future of literary past: Archives goes digital as British Library wins Wendy Cope archive

By Nick Owen | 21 April 2011
A photograph of some of the extensive corresponce of Wendy Cope acquired by the British Library
© Hughes Estate / British Library Board
The British Library’s recent acquisition of the largest ever literary archive in its history is an enticing sign of things to come as archivists adapt to newer means of communication. 

The literary records of Wendy Cope, the acclaimed poet and author of such volumes as Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, have been given to the library, joining the likes of Ted Hughes, Harold Pinter and other literary luminaries.

Unlike other archives, though, Cope’s contains more than 40,000 emails and Word documents, along with notebooks dating back to 1973.

This combination is what the British Library is describing as a "hybrid" archive, which provides an exciting new means of analysing the lives and times of prominent literary figures.      

While methods of collecting and cataloguing personal archives are changing, so those responsible for them are gaining a new perspective into the behaviour of writers in the context of their personal digital archives.

“A sense of digital vulnerability is evident in some personal archives,” says Rachel Foss, the Lead Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library.

"Some creators tend to print out some of their email correspondence, seeing this as a strategy for the preservation of their electronic archive.

“This obviously points to the importance for research libraries of addressing the 'hybrid' archive."

According to Foss, the largest collection of emails in the library’s literary archives prior to Cope belonged to Harold Pinter, which the library took from the playwright’s email folders in his Outlook application.

A photograph of poet Wendy Cope in side profile
© Adrian Harvey
A substantial collection of hybrid numbers are being built by the library, with some coming from unexpected sources. They include, surprisingly, the surrealist playwright NF Simpson.

Born in 1919, Simpson's archive includes his very precisely auto-archived converted WordPerfect files, which Foss says underlines the fact that “curators can make no assumptions as to how the maturity of the writer might imply a more or less digital archive.”

In addition to emails, Word documents are also beginning to make up large parts of the British Library’s literary manuscript collections.

Files which once belonged to the playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who won an Oscar for the film The Pianist, comprise differing drafts, fragments, diary entries as well as unpublished articles.

Digital files can also be found in the Virago Press Archive – the feminist publishing firm founded in the 1970s – and the Bloomfield/Larkin collection, which holds the research papers of Barry Bloomfield, Philip Larkin's bibliographer. 
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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