Toronto Star

Seeking outdated technology to give life to old memories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 With digital technology advancing rapidly and devices becoming outdated even more quickly, the need to come up with strategies on preserving the non-physical becomes urgent.

After exhausting other options, library archivists are encouragin­g the public to empty junk drawers and send in outdated cords through their zombie-themed UndeadTech campaign.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.

 ?? CHRIS WALKER/CHICAGO TRIBUNE ?? Librarian Nicole Finzer holds a flip phone that belonged to the late actress Karen Black.
CHRIS WALKER/CHICAGO TRIBUNE Librarian Nicole Finzer holds a flip phone that belonged to the late actress Karen Black.
 ?? AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO ?? An effort to find a cord for the phone that belonged to Black, pictured in a 2009 photograph, led to the #UndeadTech campaign.
AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO An effort to find a cord for the phone that belonged to Black, pictured in a 2009 photograph, led to the #UndeadTech campaign.

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