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Monday, 8 September 2014

Physical diaries versus digital calendars - a digital perspective

This summer as part of our annual staff festival I had the chance to play at being a ‘real’ archivist. Coming to work at a traditional archive through a digital route with no formal archives training means that there are many traditional archives activities that I have not had any experience of. It was great to have the chance to handle some physical archives as Borthwick staff embarked on a ‘mass list in’ of the Alan Ayckbourn archive.

Given a couple of heavy brown archive boxes and a pencil (no pens please!) and paper I was tasked with creating a box list (essentially just a brief description of what the boxes contained) for a selection of Ayckbourn’s diaries. This proved to be an interesting way to spend a morning.

My job doesn't take me into the strongrooms or searchroom very often and opportunities to handle physical archives are rare. Opening a box from the archives and lifting out the contents was reminiscent of my past career in archaeological fieldwork, in particular the excitement of not quite knowing what you may find.

The diaries I was looking at were appointments diaries rather than personal journals. The more recent diaries were used by Ayckbourn in a fairly standard way (as I use my physical appointments diary today). They were brief and factual, recording events happening on a particular day, be it the dress rehearsal of a particular performance, dinner with friends, Christmas parties or a reminder to take the cat to the cattery.

Earlier diaries from the late eighties were used in a slightly different way by Ayckbourn. These are A4 diaries with a page devoted to each day of the year. This format provided more space and allowed for uses beyond the simple appointments format. The diaries were used for to-do lists (with lots of crossings out as tasks were completed), names and addresses, notes and thoughts and thus had more points of interest as I looked through them. Much of the content I couldn’t make sense of – the handwriting was often a challenge (particularly when crossed out), and notes were often present without relevant contextual information required to fully understand them. These diaries were very much a personal tool and not created with future access in mind but this does not mean they could never be a valuable resource for research.

Whilst looking at these diaries it occurred to me to think about the modern day digital equivalent of these hard backed physical diaries and how they might be preserved and re-used into the future.

I am a keen user of a digital calendar in my professional life. At York University we have embraced the Google suite of tools and this includes Google calendar. It is an incredibly valuable tool with benefits far and above anything that could easily be achieved with its paper equivalent. I can share the calendar with colleagues to enable them to see where I am when, check multiple people's calendars at the same time and invite colleagues to meetings. Of course it also helps me manage my time in an more immediate way by popping reminders up 10 minutes before I am meant to be at a particular meeting or appointment.

Will we be archiving Google calendars in the future instead of (or alongside – I certainly use both at the moment) their paper equivalents? I think so. In December last year Google announced a new (and long awaited) feature which enables users of the calendar to download their appointments to a file. This of course would enable donors and depositors to hand their digital calendar over to a digital archive for longer term curation and access just as they would with their physical diaries and no doubt this is something we might expect to see delivered to us in the future.

This is the message Google sends once your calendar
has been prepared for export and archiving

Information from a Google calendar can be downloaded as described in the Gmail blog post. It exports the calendar data as iCalendar format (.ics) which is an independent format for exchange of calendar information (rather than something that is specific to Google). The fact that it is essentially a plain text file is great news for us digital archivists. It means we can open it up in a simple text editor and make some sense of the content without any specialist software.

After downloading my calendar from Google I had a look at it to see what level of detail was included within the iCalendar file and whether all the significant properties of my online calendar were preserved. Initial inspection shows that this is a pretty good version, though of course not as easy to read or understand as it is in its creating application. All the information appears to be there,
  • the date and time of each event
  • the date and time the event was created and last modified
  • whether my attendance is confirmed or not
  • the location of the meeting
  • who created the calendar event (including e-mail address)
  • who else is invited (including e-mail addresses)
  • any further details of the meeting that have been included in the entry

So although this is the modern equivalent (and even the future) of the physical appointments diaries in the Alan Ayckbourn archive, it is a very different beast. In some ways the data within it is better - more consistent and more detailed - than the physical diary and this can be one of the key benefits to working in a digital sphere. In other ways it is far less rich - there are no crossings out, no scribbles within the margin, no coffee stains and very little personality. The very things that are good about the digital calendar are the things which make it harder to get a sense of the real person behind the appointments.

Musings on value aside, it is good to know that when I'm faced with this question in the future I am in a better position to understand how we might preserve a digital calendar for the long term within our archive.

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