The ultimate Google project is to turn all textual and numerical representations of the world – all books, manuscripts etc. – into searchable digital format. Great! But what is lost in the process? In a commentary in the 6 October issue of the TLS (“Such attics cleared of me: Saving writers’ manuscripts for the nation”, pp. 14-15), my old favourite poet Andrew Motion discusses my not-so-favourite poet Philip Larkin’s view on the collection of manuscripts.
“All manuscripts have two kinds of value”, says Larkin: “what might be called the magical value and the meaningful value”. Adds Motion: “I love Larkin’s distinction between the magical and the meaningful”. There is “a primitive, visceral thrill in thinking: ‘My god, Keats’s hand rested on this piece of paper’”.
Meaningful value has almost completely dominated historians’ valuation of collections. The neglect of the magical value has probably also underscored the (otherwise very useful) avalanche of projects for the digitalisation of collections.
Andrew Motion’s/Philip Larkin’s point about the magical value of collections is a reminder, however, of the fact – which everyone who has worked in an archive knows – that the physical remains add a dimension to the historian’s work which easily gets lost when one only has access to documents in html- or pdf-format.