Our digital lives need a real world back-up, or future historians may think we never existed

The British library entrance
The British library entrance - Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe

Last month the British Library suffered a ransomware attack. Its online systems and services were paralysed, personal data stolen, and the attackers demanded a ransom of 20 bitcoin, or around £600,000. The library remains open, but it is severely disrupted.

Speaking on Radio 4 last week, Edith Hall, professor of classics and ancient history at Durham University, argued that the attack on one of our foremost places of learning should make us think hard about future resilience. We might, she suggested, even reconsider the unhackable solution of pen and paper. She, like me, perhaps remembers her undergraduate days of filling in a paper form to summon the necessary books from the subterranean stacks.

Prof Hall is not alone in her re-evaluation of analogue technology. In a recently published history, The Notebook, the author Roland Allen traces the ancient lineage of thought made tangible in pen and ink. Notebooks as we would now recognise them emerged in 14th-century Florence, where from their origins as book-keeping tools, they swiftly became valued companions of intellectual and emotional life.

Leonardo da Vinci called the ideas hastily scrawled in his notebooks his “guides and masters”. Centuries later, our insight into Leonardo’s mind is vastly enhanced by these notebooks, containing his thoughts on subjects as diverse as perpetual motion, hydraulics and anatomy – as well as a “to-do” list reminding him to “describe the tongue of a woodpecker”.

Centuries hence, our descendants may envy us the luxury of such physical records. Giulia Carla Rossi, the British Library’s curator of digital publications, has noted the fragility of digital artefacts. Social historians of the future may struggle to construct a snapshot of our era as vivid as that recorded in the Mass Observation Project of the 20th century, and our personal histories are equally vulnerable. Unless we take steps to preserve our online legacy, cherished digital memories risk passing from the Cloud to the cloud of unknowing.

The power of physical rather than virtual memorabilia is a field ripe for research. I find myself far less touched by the random photographs proffered by my smartphone than by old postcards and letters that fall unexpectedly from books I was reading years ago. As the debate over Christmas cards – to send or not to send – continues on the Telegraph’s letters pages, I am firmly on the side of pen and paper.

Friendships, like libraries, grow and flourish in the digital realm. But every so often, they need a bit of analogue back-up.

Books unrobed

A bookseller friend recently asked if I would be interested in a four-volume set of Alexander Herzen’s memoirs. Their dust jackets were missing, he warned, as though that might put me off. In general, second-hand booksellers seem to place a high value on the presence and condition of dust jackets.

This week Sotheby’s will auction a six-volume set of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, once owned by the post-war Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee. In excellent condition, inscribed by the author, they lack only their jackets, discarded by Attlee.

Book jackets can be miniature works of art, but Attlee evidently preferred to judge his books by their contents rather than their covers. “If they have come to stay,” he endearingly observed, “why should they wear their overcoats?”

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