It’s a rite of passage for newly published authors to go to the British Library and order a copy of their book. A proud moment it must be to send a librarian scurrying to dig out the manuscript they spent years on, just because they can. Now, though, one no longer needs to write a state-of-the-nation novel to take one’s place in the stacks. We all, potentially, have a home there and all we need is our thumbs, a smartphone and a thought – “Omg snow in April?! WTF” will do – and a Dewey Decimal classification awaits.
Today the British Library launches a mega-project to preserve the “digital memory” of the UK. To its archive of every book, magazine and newspaper published in the country, it will add every online publication, too – websites, blogs, even tweets and public Facebook updates. The first “sweep” for material will take in one billion web pages, or five million .uk websites. It will take three months to harvest and two months to process it, in which time the internet will have spewed out billions more pages, and that’s just about Ryan Gosling. The British Library argues, rightly, that one can’t record a true picture of life in the UK without the web, but how can any web “sweep” ever be true? And if we must preserve the social media reaction to events, who decides which tweets to keep or to trash?
The prospect of tweets and status updates alongside Dickens and Mantel in the archives is alarming anyway. Already you can’t delete your Facebook, only deactivate it, so it lives on, a Havisham-like timeline of faded party pictures and cobwebby banter. Twitter archives your old tweets, ready to be downloaded and read, presumably when you’ve run out of paint to watch drying. I shudder at future generations clicking through Instagrams of cappuccino foam, videos about a dog called Fenton and gags about the Pope eating horse and thinking: “So, this is how they lived in 2013. But… why?”
Our online lives have little to do with permanence and much to do with the instant. Trying to pin down the ever mutating beast of the internet in a library is like trying to catch soup in a sieve. Perhaps the prospect of posterity might make us think twice before we type. But before that, I’ve just seen a hilarious picture of a kitten in a box I must share.