Seeking outdated technology to give life to old memories
CHICAGO— When archivists at Northwestern University Library received boxes of personal items from the late actress Karen Black, they expected the usual: correspondence, scripts and fan mail. So when they found a silver Sprint flip phone, they were surprised and excited.
But there was one problem: It didn’t come with the cables.
Without the charger and data cables, the Northwestern alumna’s phone went from being a potential treasure trove documenting her life to just a piece of plastic and metal.
For years, archivists have combed through papers and books to capture life at a specific point in time or a famous person’s work. With digital technology advancing rapidly and devices becoming outdated even more quickly, the need to come up with strategies on preserving the non-physical becomes urgent.
After exhausting other options, library archivists are encouraging the public to empty junk drawers and send in outdated cords through their zombie-themed UndeadTech campaign. Their hope is to raise awareness about the challenges they face in preserving history and reach out to the public to help them resurrect devices such as Black’s. “At this point we haven’t gotten a match for the phone that started it all, but I’m still holding out hope,” said Nicole Finzer, digital curation librarian at Northwestern.
And Northwestern is not alone. Kathleen Feeney, head of archives processing and digital access at the University of Chicago Library, said: “We’re seeing all these new technologies from scholars later in their careers using older new technologies, if that makes sense. We’re getting things like many, many floppy disks and hard drives and laptops. It’s only a matter of time before we start getting cellphones.”
Black, a Park Ridge native who attended Northwestern before starring in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, is just one of many people with Northwestern connections whose personal items have been entrusted to the university for archiving.
Black’s widower specifically noted that his late wife had a “remarkable way of speaking,” said Kevin Leonard, a Northwestern library archivist. Her flip phone and BlackBerry could provide a look into her mannerisms and personality through text messages, photos and contacts, but without the cords it could be lost to future generations.
“People are keeping important records in this era on platforms that pose challenges,” Leonard said.
The difference between paper and digital information is the shelf life before they are inaccessible. Environmental factors such as mould, water and fire can affect paper assets, but the rapid advancement of technology can make cord-matching impossible.
“I think we have the tendency to be future-looking rather than past-looking,” said Laura Alagna, digital curation assistant at Northwestern library. “All these things move so fast and the equipment won’t be made anymore when we need it. It will be obsolete and impossible to find. If you wait around rather than trying to build a collection for it now, I think that will be a mistake.”
After reaching out to manufacturers in China, Northwestern archivists still could not locate corresponding cables for Black’s Sprint flip phone. They came up empty on eBay.
For another piece of their collection, the team is looking for a power cord for a hard drive that belonged to the late Dale Mortensen, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics.
“If we don’t transfer this data off, there’s really a ticking clock on how much time we have,” Finzer said.
While reception of the program has been largely positive, Finzer said some people are wary about archivists having the ability to “crack a phone.”
“We’re not picking up a lost phone off the street and hacking it,” said Clare Roccaforte, director of library public relations for Northwestern library.
“This is something that someone has given to us with the purpose of preserving it forever.”
Last week, archivists pulled apart tangled clumps of cords, trying to see whether any fit Black’s BlackBerry. After trying three cords, Finzer threw her hands in the air and laughed triumphantly when one black cord slid into the side of the phone.
But once a device is turned on, then archivists have to figure out how to access the information and then how to transfer it to a format where it can be read in the future.
Chris Prom, assistant archivist for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, said he has been given computers without power cords as well. But after finding the right cords for the devices, he was faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to process the data and then convert it into a form that is accessible later. Oftentimes, the systems that are needed to read the information on the device no longer exist.
“It’s like a big detective project to untangle it all and find out exactly what software you need to read it,” Prom said.