Biographer’s Material

India Knight wrote in today’s Sunday Times that she could not understand the modern penchant for recording and posting one’s life to YouTube. Tomorrow’s children, she claims, will have an all pervasive collection of images (currently still but increasingly moving à la Harry Potter) of their parents’ lives whereas she has just a single photograph of her parents together.

After reading two earlier stories based on research into archived correspondence—one on the forthcoming Official Biography of The Queen Mother which used correspondence as the main source material, and a second about how actress Vanessa Redgrave’s life almost took a very different path—it struck me that this notion of having a record of life is perhaps not so new after all, although the medium has changed from prose to digital visuals which makes for a very different kind of record. Our descendants will know much more about how things looked but how will they learn the story behind the photograph?

Fortunately letter writing has already made something of a comeback thanks to the convenience of email and combined with the ubiquity of digital cameras, a future generation of biographers should have a very rich library of material to draw upon. The weak spot is there are many threats to digital collections: corporate email retention policies which automatically expunge emails after a certain period of time, hard drive failure and theft are some of the most common, yet in many cases the (incomprehensible to those of us that value privacy) desire to publish this material can produce a useful safety net against digital loss.