How Do You Value a Historical E-Mail?

Last year a single letter written by Albert Einstein was sold for more than $400,000. But could an e-mail printout or an electronic file reach similar heights?

That's the question facing those who deal in the literary artifacts of public figures, as they struggle to work out how to do business in the electronic world where information can be copied and distributed more easily than ever before.

Booksellers, collectors and libraries are already trading in digital objects, Joan Winterkorn, of antiquarian booksellers Bernard Quaritch, told attendees at the Digital Lives conference at the British Library earlier this week. When Emory University Library bought author Salman Rushdie's archive in 2006, it received a desktop computer, three laptops, an external hard drive and a Treo smart phone along with his paper files.

And the writer John Updike, who died last month, started using computers in the 1980s, Winterkorn pointed out, so his "papers" will include a substantial cache of electronic documents.

Tumbling Prices

So far, however, digital archives have been traded as just a small fraction of a larger, mainly paper-based, archive, and to date the paper component has largely driven the highest prices. Indeed, no-one is quite sure how much the digital ephemera of a historical figure are worth.

"I don't feel the same way about the printout of an e-mail as I do a letter," said Gabriel Heaton, a literary manuscript specialist at auctioneers Sotheby's, adding that more tangible digital objects were easier for auctioneers to price and sell.

"What about a laptop? For example, the one used by JK Rowling to write 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' in an Edinburgh cafe has real value," he said, "because she used it." Even if the hard drive had been cloned by a library, the artifact would still be valuable. Barack Obama's Blackberry, even wiped of data, will likely make some archivist or collector very happy in future, he added.

Although a panel of auctioneers and booksellers suggested that digital archives would end up being valued at levels close to their paper equivalents, conference delegate Gordon Bell, from Microsoft Research, suggested that prices should actually fall to almost nothing. "Isn't it about scarcity? Once it's been copied and distributed the value is gone, it's just a piece of memory."

"The nature of digital information is that it's near-infinitely copyable," said Peter Hirtle, who works on technology strategy at Cornell University Library. To turn it into something of value, "you're having to deny the nature of the medium," he said.

Unintended Revelations

Digital collections also pose new problems for archivists, pointed out Winterkorn. "I've appraised collections that included disks that an author no longer has the computer to read, and I've had to take it on faith there is information on them."

People giving up their archive are also likely unprepared for a digital world, she pointed out, because computers and e-mails can reveal much more about someone's personal life than paper letters.

Winterkorn says that authors may find themselves divulging more than they realized and that those valuing collections may have to search through them for potentially embarrassing material to avoid later arguments.

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