You want a reason to preserve our Tweets? Because today’s ephemera is tomorrow’s history

by Stephen Tall on April 6, 2013

The news that the six UK’s six copyright libraries, including the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, are “poised to capture and record the digital universe, including the entire web domain in the UK, under new regulations which come into play from today” has met with some to-be-expected sniffiness. Here, for instance, is Alice Jones in today’s Indy:

The prospect of tweets and status updates alongside Dickens and Mantel in the archives is alarming anyway. Already you can’t delete your Facebook, only deactivate it, so it lives on, a Havisham-like timeline of faded party pictures and cobwebby banter. Twitter archives your old tweets, ready to be downloaded and read, presumably when you’ve run out of paint to watch drying. I shudder at future generations clicking through Instagrams of cappuccino foam, videos about a dog called Fenton and gags about the Pope eating horse and thinking: “So, this is how they lived in 2013. But… why?”

Yes, yes, how barmy etc. But of course the worst possible judges of what deserves to be preserved for tomorrow’s generations are us: we view everything through the prism of now. The Bodleian Library somehow misplaced its copy of Shakespeare’s first Folio in the C.17th, probably because someone dismissed it as a popular trifle of no lasting importance. The Library eventually bought it back in 1905 at vast expense.

When I worked for the Bodleian, I remember being shown into the ‘new acquisitions’ room. Apart from the vastness of the operation — 1,000 new books every day — what struck me was how varied was the published output waiting to be stored: the latest prize-winning novels and academic monographs side-by-side with Playboy magazine and bath books for babies. Who knows which of these will be reckoned by our successor generations to be of most lasting significance? I only know this: whatever we think we know now will almost certainly be wrong.