The Value of Personal Archives

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Most recordings and accounts of our lives are now being distributed online. ‘Science and culture in the 21st century are born digital; today’s Einsteins, Rembrandts, and Bachs create and record their works on digital devices.’ (1) We are archiving our lives in real-time, probably without even realising it. Everything we post on social media, our search history, our preferences and dislikes are all collected somewhere in ‘the cloud’.

How important is it to keep most of this information? Probably not very important, as our preferences and dislikes tend to change once every few decades, moving from childhood into our teenage years, and then into adulthood.

But what is personal archiving, and how can it help writers (and artists in general)?

There is a common desire amongst artists to outlive their time on Earth, to be immortal, and the only way for us to do that is to leave a piece of ourselves behind — art, buildings, children, etc. — in order to remind future generations that we were there. ‘Personal [digital] archives democratize access to the future and, for some, fulfill the deeply human urge to leave a legacy.’ (2)

Keeping fragments of old works, failed or successful, is an informative tool for artists and art lovers alike. Archives record progress, struggle and sentiments. But ‘the archive is popularly conceived as a space where things are hidden in a state of stasis, imbued with secrecy, mystery and power,’ (3) for the next generation to exhume and reanimate. There is something personal, intimate in keeping a record of our lives through art, because in art we tend to express ourselves more bravely, less constrained, and ‘at a time when we both crave and feel overwhelmed by information, the archive can seem like a more authoritative, or somehow more authentic, body of information or of objects bearing value and meaning.’ (4)

We all have different ways of preserving and storing our history. In my personal practice, I keep old stories, notes and ideas in a leather-bound folder, which can hold up to four notebooks at a time. This houses section from old journals, post-its and collages I’ve collected over the years, and it is very much a paper montage of my art through time.

Looking back through my personal archives has helped me identify common threads and themes I come back to over and over again in my writing, informing me that there is something there I haven’t fully explored, or explored to a satisfactory level. I am allowed the privilege of observing my development as an artist, and these records also allow me to review old notes and pull out paragraphs which have never made it into a full story so that I am able to repurpose and recycle them.

New developments come in the way in which archives will continue to work from the contemporary artists. The Future Library project is pioneering the archival system, by collecting text from authors and sealing them away for the next century. Meanwhile, the project will invest in growing the trees necessary to print these text, thus contributing to our environmental welfare. The Future Library’s creator, Katie Paterson, had developed similar projects which ‘consider our place on earth in the context of geological time and change.’ (5) They attest for our current social needs, and in 100 years’ time, they will expand on a narrative that runs much deeper than the face-value meaning of the collected manuscripts.

Personal archives, and archives in general, are adaptable, organic evidence of cultural heritage, and they hold value not only for the ones keeping them but also for incoming cohorts.

(1), (2) Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, edited by Donald T. Hawkins, Information Today, Inc., 2013.
(3), (4) Breakell, Sue. (2019). Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive.
(5) Information, The Future Libary.
Featured Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

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