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Germaine Greer's archive: digging up digital treasure from the flo...

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Germaine Greer's archive: digging up digital


treasure from the floppy disks
Archivists trying to preserve material stored in obsolete formats face a mighty challenge
in retrieving decades of work by the Australian writer and feminist
Kate Stanton
Friday 5 August 2016 00.41BST

In the belly of a former whisky store in the inner Melbourne suburb of Brunswick lies a
vast and varied collection of artefacts that feminist scholars cant wait to get their hands
on.
Nearly 500 boxes in this dark, temperature-controlled warehouse hold a lifetime of
handwritten letters, browning manuscripts and newspaper clippings.
But there are more modern treasures too: oppy disks containing an unpublished book
about Margaret Thatcher; two computers, a Mac Powerbook G4 and iMac G5; and
voicemail recordings about dinner plans in 1976.
These are the archives of Germaine Greer, the prolic Australian writer and icon of
second-wave feminism, whose almost obsessive dedication to preserving her work
spanned decades of changing technology from typewritten letters to emails. She kept
almost everything, including an unpublished 30,000-word love letter to the novelist
Martin Amis, discovered by academic Margaret Simons last year.
Archives are the paydirt of history, Greer said at a Melbourne University event in 2013.
Everything else is opinion. At a certain point you actually need documents.
It is now up to a small team of historians and librarians at the University of Melbourne
archives to sort through it all. But Greers collection is much more signicant than a few
hundred stacks of paper; it speaks to a greater challenge than sorting and cataloguing.
She began saving her records as a student in the 1950s, when almost everything was
written by hand or on a typewriter. But by 2013, when she sold 150 ling cabinets worth
of materials to the university, she had also amassed 600 items of digital media.
Its not just a paper archive, says Rachel Buchanan, curator of the Greer collection.
Shes used everything. Shes used every possible kind of media.
Greers archive includes oppy disks, tape cassettes and CD-roms, once cutting-edge
technologies that are now obsolete. They are vulnerable to decay and disintegration,
leftovers from the unrelenting tide of technological advancement. They will last mere
decades, unlike the paper records, which could survive for hundreds of years.

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05/08/2016, 06:03

Germaine Greer's archive: digging up digital treasure from the flo...

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Buchanan and her team are now working out how to access, catalogue and preserve the
thousands of les on these disks, some of them last opened in the 1980s. We dont
really know whats going to unfold, Buchanan says.
The Greer archivists are facing a challenge that extends far beyond the scope of their
collection. Out of this process come enormous questions about the fate of records that
are born digital, meaning they didnt start out in paper form. Record-keepers around
the world are worried about information born of zeroes and ones binary code, the
building blocks of any digital le.
Like oppy disks of the past, information stored on USB sticks, on shared drives or in the
cloud is so easily lost, changed or corrupted that we risk losing decades of knowledge if
we do not gure out how to manage it properly.
Though the problem applies to everyone from classic video-game enthusiasts to people
who keep photos on smartphones it is particularly pressing for universities and other
institutions responsible for the creation and preservation of knowledge.
Gavan McCarthy, the director of Melbourne Universitys eScholarship research centre,
says his oce has become the de facto resource for people at the university who need to
recover and manage their born-digital data. He once helped a group of panicked scholars
piece together the work of a 19th-century scientist whose letters they had spent 30 years
recording into now outdated versions of Microsoft Word.
He wants the university to invest serious resources in managing the information
generated by students and researchers both published and unpublished so it will be
available for future generations.
Weve got over 800 projects that were acting as this de facto digital archive for, while
trying to encourage the university to actually build genuine digital archiving
capabilities, he says.
McCarthy says he and his team are trying to drum up support for a university-wide
digital preservation strategy. To me its what a university is all about. Its about learning
new knowledge and holding it into the future.
McCarthy recently met counterparts from around Victoria the State Library of Victoria,
Deakin University, the Australian National Data Service and other memory
institutions, as he calls them to trade digital archiving strategies.
Sarah Slade, the head of digital collection services at the State Library, was at the
meeting. The library has been collecting digital items for years, and will soon upgrade to
a formal preservation system that will run reports on information that might be at risk.
From the librarys point of view, our role is to collect, preserve and make accessible the
documentary heritage of Victoria, she says. That includes collecting everything in
every format people produce.
Slade also serves as project manager for the digital preservation group of the National
State Libraries of Australasia, composed of 10 libraries across Australia and New
Zealand.

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Germaine Greer's archive: digging up digital treasure from the flo...

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They have organised a series of online and local Born Digital events, to take place from
8-12 August, as part of an eort to promote discussion around the collection of
digital-only information. She says its a conversation people who work outside libraries
need to have.
I think that one of the issues is that because digital is so much a part of everybodys life
now, they almost take it for granted. They assume that it will be there forever and that
you can access it whenever you want, she says.
All you need is one bad update on your smartphone and youve lost all your photos. If
you have them in the cloud, then how much control do you have over them into the
future?
McCarthy says everyone is in the same boat trying to gure out what to do with all of
this digital stu. The only industries that really do well in this space are probably the
lawyers and the banks because they have to. The rest of us are in a mess, he says.
Jaye Weatherburn, a digital preservation ocer at the eScholarship research centre, says
organisations who spend money on research will soon start asking academics to make
sure their data is sustainable, meaning it will be easy to nd even as technology
changes.
The fact that so much money goes into research and data collection and data
production, funders want to see a return on that investment, she says. So other
researchers coming along 10 years later can nd it and reuse it and were not reinventing
the wheel every time.
Weatherburn has been taking stock of the universitys record-keeping with the ultimate
goal of having a service that keeps everything from an astronomers data on planetary
movements to student records in one place and in an open format that can be easily
read by unknown, future technologies.
For now, Weatherburn says, all that knowledge is living on hard drives or share drives in
various parts of the university. Who knows what will happen to it.
In October, she will meet global colleagues at the international conference on digital
preservation in Switzerland, where she hopes to learn from the preservation work of
other institutions.
But the consensus is that information should be preserved in open-source software that
can take digital material and packaged with all the metadata that describes it.
Weatherburn says it should be checked every few years to make sure that all the zeroes
and ones havent degraded and can still be read by the technologies of the day. But few
organisations in Australia have invested in that kind of infrastructure.
Buchanan says she and her team at the archives have been guring out the process as
they go, but the management of Greers collection will highlight archiving gaps across
academia.
Just the amount of resources that were required to get text out of a disk thats 25 years
old. Its not easy, she says.

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Germaine Greer's archive: digging up digital treasure from the flo...

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Peter Neish, the universitys research data curator, is helping. He looks at how
researchers keep track of their data, store it and access it. He also manages a tiny suite of
technology inside the University of Melbournes labyrinthine Thomas Cherry building in
Carlton, where academics bring digital devices they can no longer read.
The room is spare but for old PC modems, tape cassette decks and neatly organised
boxes of oppy disks, like a mini-museum of 20th century tech.
Neish has organised a system that transfers information safely from Greers removable
media devices to a sustainable format. This includes a collection of old device readers
sourced from eBay. There is also the Fred, or Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device, a
black block of hardware used commonly by police units. It can read everything from
Blu-Rays to SD cards.
To manage the les he uses Forensic Toolkit, software developed for police
investigations; it organises les into cases and evidence. He shows o a brand new
Kryoux, a little circuit board used to take digital images of oppy disks. It was
developed by the Software Preservation Society, a group of computer enthusiasts hoping
to save their classic video games.
Archivists Lachlan Glanville and Millie Weber had never fully processed a born-digital
collection until Greers. They have had help from Neish and others, but much of their
work has been a process of trial and error.
Theres been a lot of Googling, Weber says.
Glanville says one of the most exciting aspects of digital materials is the metadata within
each le.
As an example, he pops one of Greers old oppy disks into a reader attached to his
computer and opens it through BitCurator, software similar to Forensic Toolkit. The disk,
labelled Journalism 93 opens in its original format, with each of its documents in the
original le structure that Greer used to organise her work in 1993. You can see the exact
day she last opened each le.
The joy of it is that weve got all this metadata attached to this, Glanville says. When
shes created this document, when shes last accessed it its stu thats not necessarily
inherent in a paper version of that. Theres a richness to it.
Weber says digital preservation opens endless possibilities for historians interested in
Greers life, with the metadata from her digital les leaving behind a kind of intellectual
roadmap for researchers to use.
To navigate [her les] as Greer would have, Weber says.
Neish, a former botanist who used to work with fossils, says he gets a similar thrill from
recovering digital media.
Its a nice feeling to know that youve captured it, he says. Its looking into the past
and just seeing whats there.
Neish says the Greer collection is the largest digital archive he has processed so far.

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Germaine Greer's archive: digging up digital treasure from the flo...

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Theirs is an ad hoc system, but it is working. Though he has his own recommendations
for saving personal les.
You should print them out.
Kate Stanton is employed by the University of Melbourne. This story also appears in
The Citizen.
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